When accusations of illegal mobile phone hacking and arrests first came to the newspaper News of the World a few years ago, the paper responded in the typically guarded, less-said-the-better dance advised by most lawyers and crisis communications experts. For all the talk of bold answers and transparency, the resulting strategy out of brands getting challenged by challenging crises is to stretch out the pain as long as possible with the least amount of comment or operational effort…thereby betting on everyone losing interest, which is normally what happens.
When a new round of particularly heinous accusations against the paper emerged last week, it took owner News Corp. little more than 48 hours to announce its response: The newspaper would cease publication. The last issue appeared yesterday.
News of the World was conceived in 1843 as a cheap source of titillation and scandal, basing much of its content on police vice case blotters and publishing actual transcripts of murder investigations and brothel raids. It was targeted at newly-literate working class readers who, it was assumed, were interested in little else, and it was the most-read Sunday newspaper in London from 1880 until yesterday.
The details of the crisis that led to the closing aren’t relevant to me, insomuch as they were violations of people’s privacy that weren’t contradictory to the very premises of the News of the World brand. The paper made its bread and butter on exploitation, and it made for fascinating reading for anybody who found that sort of stuff fascinating.
I’m just fascinated that Murdoch chose to shut it down. I think it evidences brilliant and timely brand strategy.
There’s obviously a backstory, perhaps one that Murdoch doesn’t want revealed. Maybe he was planning to shut it down anyway, or will simply shift another of his newspaper properties to take its place (perhaps even employ the 200+ journalists he just put out of a job, that is if he has the slightest aspirations of entry in heaven). Some critics allege that he is trying to protect his executive Rebekah Brooks, who was a mucky muck at the News and is now a bigger mucky muck in the News Corp. empire, or that he wants to avoid publicity that might adversely affect his plan to buy BSkyB. Others believe the Prime Minister’s office is complicit in some aspects of the crimes.
But there’s always a backstory, or multiple stories, especially now in our era of endless opinion and infinite sharing of content. Murdoch could have announced the second coming of Christ and people would question his sincerity. What he did was do something. He took blunt and unequivocal action, and it has and will take control of much of the unfolding drama in a way that no other behavior could.
The move reduced the crisis to a simple, binary equivalence: The paper sinned so it is no more. It created an answer to almost every question short of law-breaking ones. If he’s smart, and I think he is, he’ll let leak the financial cost, unemployment, and other negatives he and his business will suffer because of the decision. It’s penance. Retribution. And eye for an eye.
It’s tailor-made for the digital mediasphere, which is starved for clarity. There can and will be a zillion opinions about what shutting down the News means, but nobody can question the reality of the action.
Contrast that to the way BP responded to the Gulf oil spill, or the way Exxon is currently handling its spill in Montana. Both brands talk about their serious intentions to help but then take the bare minimum of steps, maintaining a reactive, passive posture that allows them to call responding to formal requests “being responsible.” This might be legally smart but it’s brand suicide. I bet if you asked a dozen people if they could characterize BP’s response to the spill, you’d get 11 answers that went something like “not enough” or “I don’t know.”
Anybody will an Internet connection will be able to respond to the question about the News’ infractions by saying “they shut it down.”
Again, it won’t stop the questions, and it may well not be enough to stymie an ongoing investigation. And I’m no fan of some of News Corp’s other media properties.
But most of the media analysis you’re getting on the move truly misses the point. Crisis communications and PR flacks just don’t get it. Crises are not about what you say but what you do, and closing the News sure said something good about the News Corp. brand. I think the only way you can do that these days is with unequivocal action.