As details of the News of the World hacking scandal unfold, I'm amazed at how Rupert Murdock and his company, News Corp., have handled it in the press. For those of you who don't know the details of the story, it recently came to light that the British tabloid hacked the cell phone of a murdered 13-year-old schoolgirl in 2002, possibly hampering the investigation into her disappearance. Additionally, the newspaper is suspected of hacking the phones of thousands more members of the general public, as well as celebrities and the royal family.
As for whether or not all of these allegations are true, I will leave that to the British courts and the American justice system, which is now looking into the possibility that 9-11 victims were also hacked. That said, the extent of the hacking appears to be significant.
Despite the overwhelming nature of these revelations, News Corp. has failed miserably at PR damage control. This is quite remarkable considering the press - including Murdock's media empire, which is one of the most powerful in the world - regularly pounce on companies, institutions and governmental organizations that don't accept responsibility for their wrong-doings. With the hacking scandal, News Corp. should have known better.
If your campus has received negative media attention, you know what it's like to be in the hot seat. For those of you who had good crisis communications plans in place, the heat from the media and resulting damage to your institution were at least somewhat mitigated. In fact, there have been cases where a crisis that was handled well led to better community and media relations.
For those of you who denied culpability and didn't have a crisis communications plan, however, the toll on you and your institution was probably considerable. If the mistake caused or negatively affected an incident involving life safety - such as a campus shooting, sexual assault or natural disaster - the fallout was most likely much worse.
Over the years, Campus Safety magazine has run some excellent articles on crisis communications and management. I encourage all of you to read or re-read "Managing the Unimaginable," "Managing Crises Means Managing Victims" and "Managing the Media." Some valuable tips from these articles include:
- When an incident occurs, instantaneous or at least very prompt action and response is required, particularly if there is serious injury or death
- Apologize to the victims and their families
- Accept responsibility
- Don't portray your institution as a victim
- Don't try to discredit your victims or shift the blame to another organization (or, heaven forbid, blame the victim)
- Acknowledge and validate the victims
- Provide a platform from which victims can describe their pain and warn others
- When appropriate, campus police and security should be available to the media and be as transparent as legally possible
- Work with reporters and provide them with credible information so they are not required to go to less reliable sources
- Hold multiple news conferences within the first few hours of an incident and then at least daily for as long as needed
- Monitor all forms of media coverage continually
- Ask for help from other individuals and institutions that have experienced similar problems or incidents
- Provide one-on-one interviews with key administrators and other appropriate subjects
- Learn from your mistakes and make the appropriate changes so the problem or incident won't happen again.
Following these guidelines will help you avoid the mess that Murdock and his media empire are experiencing right now.