Ten years on from the phone hacking scandal
The lessons for crisis communications
About the author
Chris is a lecturer, media trainer, crisis communication consultant and coach. Her in-house roles have included the global position of Director of PR for Barclays. Chris leads the CIPR PR Diploma and Crisis Comms Diplomas. BA Hons, CAM, MCIPR
When teaching crisis communications or going into organisations to advise on the subject I usually start with a definition of crisis. After all, sometimes working in PR and communications it is easy to feel we are crashing through crisis after crisis continually putting out fires and managing issues. But which is the big one that will go on to have the greatest impact?
The British Standards Institute guide to crisis management gives the following definition of a crisis, an “abnormal and unstable situation that threatens the organization’s strategic objectives, reputation or viability.”
I use the phrase “existential threat.” A true crisis is something that threatens the continued existence of the organisation.
To bring that alive in the form of a case study I often point to the phone hacking scandal that led to the closure of the News of the World – at the time one of the most influential and profitable newspapers in the world. The ten-year anniversary of this crisis was this month (July 2021) but there are still many lessons to be learnt.
How does an issue develop into a crisis?
What happened to News International, the then owners of the News of the World, shows us how an issue morphs into a crisis and how it takes a trigger point – an occurrence that makes the link between ordinary people (as opposed to the Twittersphere) and the issue – to bring about that threat to the existence of the organisation.
One of the best-known theories of the stages of crisis management is that of Fink (1986.) Fink divided the evolution of a crisis into four parts: Prodromal or risk cues that there may be an issue of some kind developing – “straws in the winds” if you like; Crisis Breakout which is the trigger point that causes the crisis to take off, often this is when the crisis connects with a wider group stakeholders; Chronic or the struggle as an organisations seeks to deal with the crisis; and, finally, Resolution or how the organisation draws a line under the affair – this is sometimes when we see the Chief Executive fall on their sword.
Cue the crisis
For News International the Prodromal phase can be seen to have begun as early as the turn of the century. There were multiple rumours of journalists engaged in underhand tactics including phone hacking to keep the scoop machine running. There were investigations by the police and the Information Commissioner’s Office in an attempt to shed light on what was going on.
This was the time news organisations such as News International should have been asking themselves searching questions. Threats to reputations are often found in corporate culture and there were certainly question marks over the culture in the country’s leading newsrooms.
This Prodromal phase for News International went up a notch following a number of Royal stories in 2005. These stories were about Prince William, and he was both annoyed and puzzled. Unlike many others in the public eye, he did not believe the source of the stories were those who worked for him let alone family or friends. It was his persistence that ultimately led to the prosecution and conviction of the News of the World’s Royal Correspondent and the exposure of the existence of phone hacking to a wider audience. The then editor of the News of the World, Andy Coulson, also resigned.
The Prodromal phase provides the obvious opportunity for an organisation to resolve an issue before it becomes a crisis. News International missed that opportunity again and decided to fall back on one of the oldest crisis narratives: one bad apple. We were told that the actions of the News of the World’s Royal Correspondent were an isolated incident that had now been dealt with.
The trigger from issue into crisis
It is interesting that the Crisis Breakout phase for News International did not come with the conviction of Clive Goodman. Possibly because for many members of the public there was a feeling that celebrities who court publicity cannot really complain when stories appear that they do not agree with. At this stage, the issue of phone hacking and press intrusion seemed confined to the rich and powerful. It hadn’t yet made that connection with ordinary people. That all changed following the investigation by award-winning journalist, Nick Davies, who revealed in July 2011 that journalists at the News of the World had hacked the mobile phone of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler. For the public at large – followed soon after by the political establishment – that lit the blue touch paper and News International found itself embroiled in a truly existential crisis and a battle for survival.
The Crisis Breakout phase is the trigger event that leads to the condemnation of an organisation from pretty much all its stakeholders. Most importantly from those with the power to act, namely regulators and governments. To survive this phase takes some guile and some luck.
Organisational paralysis develops
For News International phone hacking and press intrusion more widely now moved into the Chronic phase which is characterised by government and public enquiries and a high level of scrutiny by all stakeholders which in effective paralyses the organisation. This was particularly difficult for News International which at that time was seeking the permission of the UK government to complete the takeover of BSkyB television. The timing was very bad indeed.
The organisation responded by appointing an ex-Director of Public Prosecutions, Ken Macdonald, to investigate the fresh claims. It also began a series of payouts to celebrities and others who accused its reporters of accessing their voicemails. But it was not enough.
Crisis resolution and the need for creativity
Another difference between an incident and a crisis is the type of response required to bring about the last phase of a crisis which is, according to Fink, the Resolution. To successfully resolve a crisis requires a level of strategic creativity. A response of a different order.
In his book “Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management”, Andrew Griffin quotes the example of former British Airways Chief Executive, Willie Walsh, who was so frustrated by the seemingly unending stop on air travel posed by the ash cloud incident in 2010 when an Icelandic volcano erupted that he found a willing pilot and flew through it himself to prove it could be done safely.
News International’s owner, Rupert Murdoch, did something equally surprising when within days of the Guardian’s piece about the hacking of Millie Dowler’s phone he decided to close the News of the World – one of the gems in his newspaper business crown.
Murdoch also announced the decision to withdraw his proposal to take full control of BskyB – again a dramatic move. A slew of resignations also followed, including that of James Murdoch the then executive chairman of News International and BskyB chairman and Rupert Murdoch’s son, and even Rupert Murdoch himself from parts of his empire.
It was just about enough and from then on News International and News Corporation entered a long period of atonement punctuated by apologies from Rupert Murdoch and a continuing series of payouts to victims which continues to this day. Murdoch even looked as time went on to have realised his ambitions in relation to BskyB and becoming a global satellite TV player but he finally lost out in 2018 when he was outbid by a competitor. The Resolution had seriously depleted his war chest and contributed to a fundamental (although some would say not enough) change in how the media now operate.
Steven Fink (1986) Crisis Management: Preparing for the Inevitable, American Management Association
Andrew Griffin (2014) Crisis, Issues and Reputation Management, Kogan Page