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.