News of the World Hacking Scandal is Bad Business, Not a ‘PR Disaster’

The fallout last week from the News of the World phone hacking scandal, and the subsequent bombshell decision by News International to close its 168-year-old tabloid, has raised a whole slew of accusations, questions and soul-searching within the media industry as to what it all means.

And, of course, it’s also led to the media reducing this to yet another “PR disaster,” as though every business crisis, or every crisis in general, falls squarely on PR’s shoulders. If only we had that much influence on company’s bottom lines. 

Let’s be blunt: This is not a “PR disaster,” nor is it a “PR nightmare.” It is unethical journalism at its worst that has evolved into a criminal investigation into the senseless and cruel hacking of a 13-year-old missing girl’s cell phone, among other similarly vile acts.

That, in itself, is very bad for journalism. And yes, the whole of the incident and its ensuing fallout will tarnish News Corp.’s reputation, as well as that of its kingpin, Rupert Murdoch.

But calling it a “PR disaster,” as The Washington Post blared in its July 8 cover story, is simply far too simplistic given the many layers of criminality and journalistic ethical grievances involved.

Ultimately, what this comes down to is a case of bad business, bad journalism and bad morals by many high-ranking News International and News Corp. executives. While it may be easy for the media to label it as a “PR disaster” — after all, that does have a nice ring to it, doesn’t it? — that glosses over the larger issues at play.

It also fails to take into account that for this to, indeed, be a true “PR disaster,” the fallout from News Corp.’s actions (e.g., shuttering News of the World) would have to go wildly wrong. That’s because, by definition, you can only have a “PR disaster” if you actually do something to mitigate a previous action (see: Facebook’s disastrously failed and unethical attempt to mitigate the gains of Google.)

“PR disasters” don’t just happen. Your company doesn’t just one day have a chemical spill on site and that immediately becomes a “PR nightmare.” No, the nightmare occurs after the ensuing response, when people begin to pick through your firm’s response and flesh out whether it was timely, appropriate and communicated in a transparent manner, all tenets of successful and ethical public relations.

Perhaps the one big takeaway for PR pros is what many of us already know: reputation matters; it can be lost in mere moments. Or, as PRWeek Editor Steve Barrett aptly put it in his leader this week, “In this age of conversation and interaction, a lack of transparency is simply untenable.”

A phone hacking scandal, even one as egregious as what has now shut down News of the World, isn’t, in itself, a “PR disaster.” It’s just unethical journalism, compounded with bad business, which has made a big mess for Rupert Murdoch and once again left us realizing that even the mighty can fall.