What do you do with a toxic brand? If you’re News Corp it appears, you opt for euthanasia, perhaps in the hope that the sheer ‘shock’ of stopping a 168 year old institution dead in its tracks will be enough to divert the rest of the media from your crown jewel assets and side-track regulators and other scrutinisers into believing you’re done enough to warrant completing other lucrative deals.
Consumers can be remarkably forgiving, especially with brands that forge a ‘bad-boy’ reputation. But, as in the case of News of the World, there comes a point where they over-step the mark and brands pass through a thin veil from scandalous to unacceptable. The paper seems to have gone there, in the public’s mind, with its actions over Milly Dowler.
Then what should they do?
The problem with dramatically wiping the brand from the face of the Earth by way of a response is that you bury the problem, and are seen to do so – which doesn’t address or resolve the deeper and more troubling questions such as why the brand was allowed to behave like this in the first place. Heads have rolled. Arrests will follow. But for advertisers the disquieting ethos has not been seen to be adequately resolved.
Nick Liddell, global strategy director at branding group Clear, provides some great insights in this article by comparing News Corp’s actions to those of a utility. Utilities, he points out are largely concerned with maintaining a reputation that ensures they can keep their license to operate. “The companies that are used to behaving like utilities understand that … having the brand is what makes them visible, and that being visible is what makes them accountable … [News Corp] could find that axing News of the World does nothing to make them seem more accountable.”
I agree wholeheartedly.
Whilst I am no crisis management expert, from a brand point of view, it seems to me that media organisations live and die on their integrity and on their ability to identify and quantify, as well as report, on what is happening. If I was advising News Corp I’d have put ‘demonstration of integrity’ at the very top of my list of priorities followed closely by ‘transparency of actions’. So I might have agreed to open the books to the relevant authorities, for example, or pressed for an independent review with a commitment to stand by the decisions. I would certainly have fronted the media and been as open and frank as possible.
Far from defusing the situation, the apparently impetuous act to close the paper (and I’m not convinced at all that it is as ‘impulsive’ as it may have been portrayed) and the perceived protection of selected members of staff has annoyed loyal readers, probably had little influence on regulators and increased suspicion that there is much more to this than News Corp is prepared to let the world see. And we haven’t even touched the sides on the messages that such actions send internally.
If the agenda has indeed been to protect the company’s license to operate, then I agree with Nick Liddell that the most meaningful thing News Corp could have done was to put up with the flak and continue operating. Having dealt it out for years to celebrities through News of the World, News Corp seems to have been a great deal more circumspect when the boomerang returned.
The wider message for all brands facing difficult or embarrassing situations is that you may prefer to say nothing and your lawyers might counsel you to say nothing – but for your consumers and for regulators, there is no comfort, or reassurance, in silence or silencing. In fact, there may be even more reputational risk.