The Murdoch phone-hacking crisis is far from over. Yet it is already clear that the apology strategy pursued by News Corporation and its CEO has been largely ineffective, and maybe even be a complete failure.
Most crisis management textbooks recommend apology when you or your organization have done wrong. But the desperate attempts by Rupert Murdoch to apologise his way out of a crisis demonstrate that there is much more to it than simply a PR ploy.
As long ago as early April, News of the World “unreservedly apologised” to victims hurt by its phone hacking. “Here today, we publicly and unreservedly apologize to all such individuals. What happened to them should not have happened. It was and remains unacceptable.”
However, in mid July, with the crisis snowballing, Murdoch senior was telling the Wall Street Journal that his company had dealt with the phone-hacking crisis “extremely well in every way possible” and had made just “minor mistakes.” Then next day he was in London personally apologising to the family of murdered schoolgirl Milly Dowler, whose phone had been hacked by the News of the World. The Dowler family lawyer commented: “I don’t think somebody could have held their head in their hands and said they were sorry so any times.”
While Murdoch tried to argue it was a “private meeting,” any genuine contrition was far outweighed by the event descending into a media circus, with photographers fighting for position outside the meeting and protesters screaming “shame on you”.
Right idea, wrong execution. A truly private meeting to apologise personally to Milly’s family may have served some good purpose. The media stunt it became could only have added to the terrible anguish of the visibly shaken parents. And to make matters even worse, it was revealed before a Parliamentary Committee that even as Murdoch was busy apologising to Milly’s family, his company was still paying the legal fees of the convicted felon responsible for hacking into her phone.
But the apology strategy rolled on, trying every trick in the PR handbook. Next was paying for “We are sorry” advertisements which appeared over Rupert Murdoch’s signature in the Daily Mail, Daily Telegraph, Financial Times, Guardian, Independent, Sun and Times. Again, sometimes the right idea, but in this instance, wrong company and wrong circumstances. Advertising to apologise for an error or misjudgement which affects the broad public can make sense. Advertising to apologise for proven criminal behaviour and the effects of entrenched corporate culture was a cynical and entirely futile gesture.
Finally, came the carefully scripted apology to Parliament: “This is the most humble day of my life.” As Guardian reporter Nick Davies concluded: “PR consultants around the world would spot the soundbite there, uttered by Murdoch but written surely by an expert.” Certainly not written by an expert on grammar. And the awkward soundbite was typically all about Murdoch, not his victims.
Apology in the face of a crisis is often the right thing to do. But to be effective it must be prompt and sincere and credible . . . not just tactics recommended by hastily-recruited PR consultants.