Update: @tim_weber, BBC business and technology editor, sees a PR presence in the “dramatic change of tone” from News Corp.
As PR people, surely we should feel vindicated that News International’s reputation implosion has prompted the hiring of PR company Edelman for “general comms support and public affairs counsel” following the phone hacking scandal.
After all, doesn’t everyone – as in David Cameron’s oft-repeated words about Andy Coulson – deserve a second chance?
There will be some that say there is no coming back from a reputation disaster such as a newspaper hacking the phone of a murder victim and deleting voicemail messages, so giving the family false hope she was still alive.
Neverthless, reputation rehabilitation is not impossible, Edelman has got the gig and good luck to it. But what will the PR planning agenda look like?
Rebuilding News International’s reputation is key to the Murdochs’ long game – gaining total control of BSkyB. Though it has ditched the bid now, News Corporation, News International’s parent company, needs to regain the trust of the public, politicians and regulators to stand a chance of being deemed “fit and proper” to own not just all but any of the broadcasting giant.
In terms of reputation management, closing the News of the World has been the Murdochs’ symbolic gesture that rogue companies within their organisation will pay the ultimate price, despite the inconvenient fact that the wrongdoing was done on someone else’s watch.
But for any PR provider tasked with restoring corporate reputation, having access to the “warts and all” truth of what goes on behind closed doors is essential; otherwise, life will become a continual fire-fighting exercise rather than a strategic campaign to not only talk about how the company is effecting positive change, but prove it.
And this is where I think Edelman’s biggest challenge lies: how does an outside organisation negotiate a corporate culture where the most senior executives have been willing to cover up grossly bad practices with denials, selective amnesia or claims of complete ignorance? As Steve Richards comments in The Independent today, “Here was a company that evidently thought it was powerful enough to get away with it, able to block police enquiries and to pay off victims of crime”. Demonstrating a fundamental overhaul of corporate behaviour will need more than cosmetic communications based on half-truths to prove that change has genuinely taken root in News International.
Good PR has to be founded on truth, and Edelman needs to be confident that what News Corp is telling them – at any point – is true. As the Burson Marsteller/Facebook debacle showed, the agency has a reputation problem just as big as its client’s when forced to base a campaign on spin.