The custard pie in Rupert Murdoch’s face was unwittingly a PR masterstroke!!

July 20, 2011

The “custard pie” that landed in Rupert Murdoch’s face at yesterday’s Commons Committee “interrogation”, added a farcical element to the whole News of the World Phone Hacking Scandal, but by doing so diffused some of the hostility directed towards the News Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive. This mindless act singlehandedly did more in terms of favourable PR for Rupert Murdoch than any endless amount of press releases produced by PR agency Edelman, newly appointed to counter the crisis by News Corporation.

Forget Corrie, Eastenders, Emmerdale or Hollyoaks – “The Fall of the Murdoch Empire” has been the best soap opera on TV in the last two weeks. Ironically as the curtain was falling on the BBC2 series “The Kennedys”, a US soapstyle mini series about great wealth, power and politics that ultimately corrupts and comes back to haunt and destroy the family…….what do we find, but history repeating itself with “The Murdochs”!! A number of media pundits have likened the saga to William Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, with Rupert Murdoch in the lead role as an arrogant, bombastic old man caught in a raging storm, but equally you could liken the drama to “Hamlet”, where “something is rotten in the state of Denmark” or in this case “something is rotten in the culture of News Corporation”!! There is clearly an endemic cultural malaise within News International’s tabloid titles and Rupert Murdoch can try and distance himself from any hands on involvement owith the News of the World and The Sun, but the Chief Executive and founder of any organisation creates and moulds the culture of that organisation.

So on one level the Murdoch Media Merry Go Round has been jaw droppingly entertaining with daily new phone hacking revelations, the high profile resignations of Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks, News International Chairman and Chief Executive respectively, followed quickly by the resignations of the Metropolitan Police’s Top Cops, Sir Paul Stevenson and John Yates. And just to add a further John F Kennedy assassination-esque conspiracy twist, Sean Hoare the original News of the World phone hacking whistleblower was then found dead at his home!!

However from a PR perspective, this whole episode has been an unmitigated disaster for Rupert and James Murdoch and News Corporation. What absolutely beggars belief is that the Murdoch Media Moguls had absolutely no sense of public relations and PR crisis management. You would have thought that a man who had built a media empire across most of the world’s continents would have had an innate sense of how to handle the media or at very least have employed a top global PR agency!! Belatedly this has happened with the deployment of the world’s biggest PR agency Edelman, but the damage was already done.

As reported in this week’s Marketing Week, Francis Ingham, Chief Executive of the Public Relations Consultants Association in the UK, says that Rupert Murdoch’s actions of “self interest” in closing the News of the World and initially failing to apologise for his company’s handling of the crisis could leave him with no choice but to step down as News Corp’s CEO. “Murdoch is now paying a hefty price for his arrogant indifference to protecting his company’s reputation. He shrugged off the circumstances and only thought of his financial model”.

In the US, federal investigations have been launched into allegations that News Corporation journalists hacked the phones of 9/11 victims. Rosanne Fiske, CEO of the Public Relations Society of America, says the opening of such investigations is symbolic of the “severely diminished” credibility the company now has in the eyes of Americans. “Even if News Corp comes out of this crisis without any more personnel or business losses, it will forever face a looming reputation and credibility challenge across the world.  Fiske adds: “Rupert Murdoch has survived many crises over his 40-plus years in media, whether he and News Corp can survive this latest one is now very much in question” ( Marketing Week ).

It is all very reminiscent of BP’s Deepwater Horizon explosion and Gulf of Mexico oil spill last year.  The BP Chief Executive’s management of the PR Crisis was a catalogue of errors, beginning with minimising the problem and exacerbated by a refusal to convey the requisite remorse and regret. Even after the watershed Milly Dowler revelation that totally changed public opinion, James Murdoch came across as distant, aloof, robotic and out of touch with public sentiment.

However adept, skilled and experienced the Public Relations Practioner / Consultant, you simply can’t defend the indefensible and that is what the hacking of Milly Dowler’s phone is. That said undoubtedly the appointment of PR consultancy Edelman in the last 10 days has had an immediate effect and impact steadying the good ship HMS News Corp!! Clearly the first thing they advised was the private meeting with Rupert Murdoch and the Dowler family. Within days of the arrival of the PR firm at the scene of the crime, Les Hinton and Rebekah Brooks had resigned – no small coincidence. Thirdly Rupert and James Murdoch were instructed and directed very well by the Public Relations Experts in that their performance in front of the Commons culture, media and sport select committee demonstrated sufficient humility, contrition and co-operation to have won some support in the political and public forum. However their need not to incriminate themselves also made them look out of touch with their business and this will not play well with the all important shareholders in the USA. Rupert Murdoch looked like a doddery, hesitant old man not in possession of the facts and although very articulate James Murdoch was very vague on detail and facts that he should have been on top of. On this evidence it seems very unlikely that Murdoch Senior will continue as Chief Executive for much longer and even less likely that Murdoch Junior will succeed him!!

It would take a massive leap of credulity to believe that the public relations consultants at Edelman briefed and advised Rupert Murdoch to play the role of a hurt, confused, vulnerable old man in the mould of King Lear and even less likely that they organised the “custard pie” throwing incident, but had they done so it would have been a PR masterstroke in terms of generating a sense of sympathy towards Murdoch father and son!!


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