When spin is not enough

By Martin Vogel

The hardest word?

I beg your forebearance in returning so soon to the leadership failings at News International. But no sooner did I publish my last post than it was overtaken by events. Rebekah Brooks saw the error of her ways and Rupert Murdoch issued this apology.  Perhaps a retweet of my post reached their Twitter feeds.

Andrew Hill summarises the reasons why the timing and nature of this apology is unlikely to help Murdoch:

Mr Murdoch’s audience is understandably confused. If you set any store by the fad for corporate bosses to demonstrate their “authenticity” then the “authentic” Mr Murdoch was the ruthless mogul of July 3, the day before the outrage over the hacking of murder victim Milly Dowler’s phone broke, or the smiling patriarch, toughing it out with his arm round Ms Brooks earlier this week…

Recent examples of crisis mismanagement, from BP to Toyota, suggest a late and half-hearted expression of regret is sometimes worse than no apology at all. Mr Murdoch’s letter runs that risk: it is written in the corporate third person (“We are deeply sorry…”) with the only direct personal note being the declaration “I realise that simply apologising is not enough”. But what really undermines corporate apologies is not tardiness or tentativeness but doubt about the sincerity of the apologiser.

John Naughton reminds us that only the day before Murdoch’s meeting yesterday with the Dowler family to apologise to them in person, he was telling the Wall Street Journal that News Corporation had handled the phone hacking crisis “extremely well in every way possible” and had made just “minor mistakes”.

If you were to conclude that this kind of volte face shows every sign of following the crisis management rulebook, you wouldn’t be wrong.  The dramatic change in tone came after news dropped on 14 July that Murdoch had called in the PR firm Edelman.

However, the scale of the dissonance this intervention has brought about between the Murdoch of Thursday and the Murdoch of Friday means the media manipulation could prove counter-productive.  John Naughton – alighting on how Murdoch has co-opted the Dowler family to his rehabilitation – reinforces Andrew Hill’s point (albeit in more trenchant language):

What is truly nauseating is the way the Dowlers are being exploited by the Murdochs for the second time. First their daughter’s phone is hacked by News Corporation’s employees in order to increase sales of his publications. Now they are being used as passive stooges for the Digger’s PR-driven ‘fightback’.

My interest in this is what the leaders of other organisations can learn.

What we are seeing with News International, in extreme form, is the classic approach to leadership that has prevailed in many organisations for the past thirty years or so.  This has focussed too strongly on the short-term, sectional interest of the organisation and insufficiently on ensuring that what the organisation actually does is consistent with the social purpose the organisation exists to deliver.  Behind this approach sits the implicit assumption that, in the event of a crisis, we can spin our way out of trouble.

As apologies go, the text of Rupert Murdoch’s statement is strong and candid.  It acknowledges that the root of his organisation’s crisis is that it lost sight of its social purpose and that the way forward is to connect with it:

Our business was founded on the idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society. We need to live up to this.

The difficulty is that when an organisation is in crisis, it is rarely simply an operational matter.  It becomes a crisis of trust, which is what Murdoch is facing, and the public quite reasonably asks whether the culture that produced the crisis is capable or trustworthy enough to sort it out.

In the case of News International, quite apart from the responsibility the executives bear for fostering a culture which led to criminal activity, one can reasonably ask of the volte face “Why now?”  The evidence of News International’s industrial-scale espionage, intrusion of privacy and accumulation of dossiers on public figures has been in their hands for years.  The executives have had every opportunity to acknowledge their failings and make amends.  But they have done so only when faced with the possibility of the collapse of the whole empire that is News Corporation.

Let’s leave aside, for the moment, the negative social value caused for the victims of News International’s criminality and for the British public whose democracy News International subverted and whose police they corrupted.  How much pain could News Corporation’s executives have saved themselves and their shareholders had they taken care to ensure all along that their UK business lived up to the founding idea that a free and open press should be a positive force in society?

Image courtesy Patrick Kiteley.