Murdoch's PR Problem: Two Experts Do Damage Control
When the news got out that Rupert Murdoch's British paper News of the World had illictly hacked into cellphones, the paper folded and people called for a boycott of the gargantuan Murdoch empire. Unfortunately, as we mentioned last week, the latter is nearly impossible given how many outlets fall under the umbrella of News Corporation's media conglomerate. Some of them, including Fox News and the New York Post, aren't exactly known for their ethics, but others are highly respected, especially the venerable Wall Street Journal.
Just because a major boycott isn't likely, that doesn't mean the public is feeling warm and fuzzy toward News Corporation. The media company has a major PR problem on their hands, a scandal that goes beyond an isolated incident and delves into huge issues of press regulation and media standards. How can News Corp make us feel better about consuming its products, if even its own CEO seemed to have no idea how the company is run? I solicited advice from experts on how outlets like the Journal can win back the public's trust.
Hire an ombudsman or a public editor. An ombudsman is someone who's hired outside a media company (or any company) to act as a mediator between the outlet and the public. He or she handles everything from ethics breaches to angry letters from disgruntled readers. Needless to say, News Corporation doesn't have one. But after this latest scandal, they should probably make the investment.
"The importance of the ombudsman is their independence," says Alicia Shepard, media critic and former ombudsman for NPR. "It's telling the public, 'We're hiring someone objective to make us more accountable.' That person is actually hired to publicly criticize the company they work for."
Even if the ombudsman ends up mostly putting out fires rather than preemptively weighing in on ethics, it's an important symbolic move. When The New York Times was publicly embarrassed in 2003 by Jayson Blair, a reporter who plagiarized and repeatedly fabricated information in his stories, the paper hired a public editor, a position similar to an ombudsman who acts as the "reader's advocate."
Use the UK/USA culture clash to your advantage. News of the World had a notorious tabloid reputation—it was nicknamed "News of the Screws" because of its fondness for covering sex scandals. Britain in general has a looser way of reporting and writing news media, where the bending of ethics is a little more acceptable. But Americans feel very different about these tactics, and the outlets on this side of the pond should make that message clear.
"Right now what every American wants to hear is that we our news media doesn't do things the way tabloidy London does them," Shepard says.
You know that ethics code nobody reads? Read it. "You can't just have a strong ethics code—you have to make sure it's reviewed regularly," Shepard tells me. When NPR found itself in hot water after Juan Williams' incendiary appearance on Fox News, the company took a serious look at the standards it had laid out and made sure its employees were aware of the ethics code. Shepard adds that you also have to make sure the code is being enforced, possibly by hiring a standards editor and revising your corrections policy. The New York Times also made the investigations of hires and promotions more rigorous post-Jayson Blair. "Even putting an email after the text of a story more easily opens the lines of communication," Shepard says.
The Wall Street Journal may be on the right track with this one—they have an ethics code that their employees have to sign every year.
Keep your nose to the grindstone. "Grand gestures aren't as good as making concrete steps to walk the walk," says Lance Morgan, chief communications strategist at Powell Tate (the communications firm NPR called when the Juan Williams scandal blew up). Making a dramatic announcement or firing a bunch of people "can backfire," he adds. "People know if it looks too much like a public relations stunt."
Morgan says the advantage and disadvantage of repairing a media company's image is that the media are communicating with the public all the time. They have just as many chances to freshly screw up their reputations as they do to ensure us that they're doing things right. Morgan says the outlets who haven't been implicated don't have to go around apologizing for anything.
"You can't prove you haven't done something, and I don't think [The Wall Street Journal] needs to," Morgan says. "They just need to make sure they're watching their back."