My 12 golden rules in a crisis

Here’s how Rupert and co might have handled things.

Every crisis is different and often a media storm in politics is different from a media storm in the corporate world. But there are some important rules to follow, so here is my check list. See if you think News International has managed to follow any of them so far:

1. Establish a clear decision making operation - UK-wide, or any other region around the world, ideally slightly distant from the ongoing delivery of the business itself. Perhaps News International have done just this but it is currently hard to tell.

2. Identify early on a credible talking head who has been media trained, someone who demonstrates they understand the problem and can roll with the punches - not someone on the defensive.

3. Get good independent advice both PR and legal. If you are in a media storm your decision making will suffer, as will that of others inside the organisation because their jobs are on the line. And ensure that the independent advisers are sufficiently senior to tell the people at the very top of the organisation what to do.

4. If someone/anyone has suffered as a result of your actions, show empathy from the very top of the organisation.

5. If you are door stepped or on camera think in advance about the image - look and sound serious, and be polite. So far James Murdoch with a body guard in a yellow jacket and Rupert Murdoch and Rebecca Wade grinning off to dinner (see point 3 about empathy) have completely failed this test. The best role model? Bill Clinton. He was always polite, always friendly whatever the media storm.

6. The most important rule of all: establish what the truth is; decide how it will be told. Sounds easy but it's mission impossible in most organisations. Ultimately, the truth will get out so establish how you want it to be told and, above all, tell it. Do not allow it to seep out day by day, one painful revelation at a time - this keeps the crisis going.

7. An organisation in a crisis will leak so ensure that communication to all employees comes from the very top -- but assume that every word of it will get out. At the same time ensure highly effective communication with everyone in the company. That way they can become advocates alongside you.

8. There is some merit in doing the opposite of what your instincts tell you, so be more open and accessible, always be polite. There's a case study about a bank in the Netherlands which held daily press conferences. It may sound like madness but it put them back in the driving seat. An open approach would mean saying "yes" immediately to a Select Committee - or indeed offering to do it in advance. An open approach would mean Rupert Murdoch flying into London and asking to meet with Alan Rusbridger to see all the evidence and put his company right immediately. An open approach would be an offer to fund the judicial inquiry, or fund a trust to represent victims in a media storm.

9. Run a parallel investor relations operation and a parallel public affairs operation -- reassurance and communication with "stakeholders" are critical.

10. No-one is indispensible, however much you like them.

11. Most lawyers will tell you to say "no comment". Don't always assume in a media storm that is the right thing to do.

12. Say sorry. Say it quickly and keep saying it.

My guess is that some of this is happening. But many journalists are awful at crisis communications, especially when they are in the storm themselves. It is a very different experience when the microscope is turned on you. When you are in the media spotlight it distorts all rational thought - it is exhausting, feels never ending and all invasive.

Anyone reading this who has been followed by snappers, hustled on their doorstep, comforted loved ones after abuse has been shouted through their letter box or at school, followed everywhere by a motorbike, will know and understand what I am describing - logical decisions or the right decisions are tough in that environment.

Perhaps that explains why, as far as I can see, News International is, contrary to Rupert Murdoch's claims in the Wall Street Journal, struggling to handle this crisis.

Aside from the obvious "don't do it in the first place", have I missed any golden rules out? Please feel free to add some more.

 

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A swimming pool and a bleeding toe put my medical competency in doubt

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Sometimes the search engine wins. 

The brutal heatwave affecting southern Europe this summer has become known among locals as “Lucifer”. Having just returned from Italy, I fully understand the nickname. An early excursion caused the beginnings of sunstroke, so we abandoned plans to explore the cultural heritage of the Amalfi region and strayed no further than five metres from the hotel pool for the rest of the week.

The children were delighted, particularly my 12-year-old stepdaughter, Gracie, who proceeded to spend hours at a time playing in the water. Towelling herself after one long session, she noticed something odd.

“What’s happened there?” she asked, holding her foot aloft in front of my face.

I inspected the proffered appendage: on the underside of her big toe was an oblong area of glistening red flesh that looked like a chunk of raw steak.

“Did you injure it?”

She shook her head. “It doesn’t hurt at all.”

I shrugged and said she must have grazed it. She wasn’t convinced, pointing out that she would remember if she had done that. She has great faith in plasters, though, and once it was dressed she forgot all about it. I dismissed it, too, assuming it was one of those things.

By the end of the next day, the pulp on the underside of all of her toes looked the same. As the doctor in the family, I felt under some pressure to come up with an explanation. I made up something about burns from the hot paving slabs around the pool. Gracie didn’t say as much, but her look suggested a dawning scepticism over my claims to hold a medical degree.

The next day, Gracie and her new-found holiday playmate, Eve, abruptly terminated a marathon piggy-in-the-middle session in the pool with Eve’s dad. “Our feet are bleeding,” they announced, somewhat incredulously. Sure enough, bright-red blood was flowing, apparently painlessly, from the bottoms of their big toes.

Doctors are used to contending with Google. Often, what patients discover on the internet causes them undue alarm, and our role is to provide context and reassurance. But not infrequently, people come across information that outstrips our knowledge. On my return from our room with fresh supplies of plasters, my wife looked up from her sun lounger with an air of quiet amusement.

“It’s called ‘pool toe’,” she said, handing me her iPhone. The page she had tracked down described the girls’ situation exactly: friction burns, most commonly seen in children, caused by repetitive hopping about on the abrasive floors of swimming pools. Doctors practising in hot countries must see it all the time. I doubt it presents often to British GPs.

I remained puzzled about the lack of pain. The injuries looked bad, but neither Gracie nor Eve was particularly bothered. Here the internet drew a blank, but I suspect it has to do with the “pruning” of our skin that we’re all familiar with after a soak in the bath. This only occurs over the pulps of our fingers and toes. It was once thought to be caused by water diffusing into skin cells, making them swell, but the truth is far more fascinating.

The wrinkling is an active process, triggered by immersion, in which the blood supply to the pulp regions is switched off, causing the skin there to shrink and pucker. This creates the biological equivalent of tyre treads on our fingers and toes and markedly improves our grip – of great evolutionary advantage when grasping slippery fish in a river, or if trying to maintain balance on slick wet rocks.

The flip side of this is much greater friction, leading to abrasion of the skin through repeated micro-trauma. And the lack of blood flow causes nerves to shut down, depriving us of the pain that would otherwise alert us to the ongoing tissue damage. An adaptation that helped our ancestors hunt in rivers proves considerably less use on a modern summer holiday.

I may not have seen much of the local heritage, but the trip to Italy taught me something new all the same. 

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear