News International urged to take proactive stance over phone hacking

News International has been urged to drop its low-key comms strategy if it is to stop the phone-hacking scandal infecting its wider corporate reputation.

Tough at the top: Brooks and Rupert Murdoch
Tough at the top: Brooks and Rupert Murdoch

The UK arm of News Corporation finally tried to take a measure of control over the phone-hacking scandal last weekend, by publishing an apology in the News of the World and creating a £20m compensation fund for victims.

PRWeek understands that recently installed corporate affairs boss Simon Greenberg and group general manager Will Lewis were instrumental in the decision to communicate more proactively.

Greenberg, ex-2018 World Cup bid comms boss, and Lewis, the former Telegraph editor-at-large, are personally advising top News International executives including Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch over the affair.

While the apology was widely seen by media and corporate reputation experts as 'too little, too late', the attempt to engage and wrestle back a measure of control of the issue was almost unanimously welcomed.

Comms industry figures said the strategic challenge for NI now was to proactively change the narrative to make it more about the British media and less about the corporate reputation of the firm and parent News Corporation.

Tony Langham, boss at City PR firm Lansons Communications, said that privately the firm should 'ensure questions keep being asked about other media groups', while publicly taking a lead on 'ending self-regulation and pushing for a truly independent Press Complaints Commission'.

Others shared the view that, paradoxically, NI can take advantage of being in the spotlight by being seen to take firm action on ethics, while other tabloids are keeping a low profile to avoid being dragged into the debate.

Joshua Van Raalte, MD at Brazil PR, commented: 'NI has a great opportunity to set industry best practice with a zero-tolerance governance policy, helping to regain public confidence in its titles and the wider journalism profession.'

Weekend media reports speculated how the admission of guilt might affect News Corporation's bid for outright ownership of BSkyB.

Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has stated he will not allow the issue to affect the decision, while News Corporation believes there is wide understanding that the News of the World issue is an entirely separate matter.

THE STATEMENT

News International

8 April

Following an extensive internal investigation and disclosures through civil legal cases, News International has decided to approach some civil litigants with an unreserved apology and an admission of liability in cases meeting specific criteria ...

It is now apparent that our previous inquiries failed to uncover important evidence and we acknowledge our actions then were not sufficiently robust ...

We will continue to engage with and challenge those who attempt to restrict our industry's freedom to undertake responsible investigative reporting in the public interest.

£20m: Reported size of News of the World's compensation fund

24: Current number of phone-hacking lawsuits issued against NoW

7,000: People possibly affected by hacking, according to lawyer Charlotte Harris

£1m: Reported sum NoW has paid to both Max Clifford and Gordon Taylor

Source: various media reports

HOW I SEE IT - NEIL BAYLEY, CORPORATE PRACTICE LEADER, PORTER NOVELLI

News International is feeling the full force of a backlash from the worse kind of crisis - one of its own making.

In the modern world of corporate responsibility, the company can't push blame down the chain any longer. The current situation is compounded by the fact it was denied for so long, its internal investigation came too late and the perceived flaws in previous police investigations.

Backed into a corner, NI is trying to be robust and take the necessary action now, but the more difficult job will be restoring its reputation for the long term. As it deals with the current mess, it needs to demonstrate that the right checks and balances are in place elsewhere within its stable.

The focus has to be on rebuilding trust in its corporate culture by proving this kind of problem is not systemic.

JONATHAN HEMUS, FOUNDER, INSIGNIA

Taking responsibility for a crisis and saying sorry can signal the start of reputation recovery in the event of a major issue, so the News of the World's statement could be seen as a turning point in this long-running crisis.

The challenge faced by the newspaper is that in order to be effective, apologies must be sincere and timely. In this case, it took far too long for Nl to acknowledge the reality of the situation and its apology was made only when its back was right against the wall.

Earlier denials of widespread phone-hacking will damage the credibility of any future statements.

The one crumb of comfort for the News of the World is that, given its reputation for sensational stories, its reputation is likely to be less damaged by the revelations than would be the case for a more establishment title.

Brand Media editor in chief Danny Rogers' view.

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