Coulson’s Last Hope For Crisis Management – At Least Phone Hacking Happened Before Twitter

Andy Coulson's regnation

Crisis which couldn't be managed

So, Andy Coulson fell on his sword.

Neatly he repeated the well-worn maxim that the PR man should never become the story, stating: “When the spokesman needs a spokesman it’s time to move on”.

As guiding principles go, it’s a good one and few in PR or media relations could justify becoming the centre of a news story.

Yet such a turn of events is survivable. The rules of crisis management apply even to troubled spin doctors: acknowledge the problem; address it rapidly and transparently; concentrate on the facts.

But the prime minister’s most trusted media adviser wasn’t really brought low by a mobile phone hacking scandal from five years ago. As David Cameron regularly pointed out, Coulson paid the price for that by quitting the Editor’s chair at Britain’s biggest Sunday newspaper.

Coulson was actually scuppered by the claims of innocence which let him leave the paper with his head held high. Effectively he quit the NoTW saying: “I’m an honourable guy, so I’ll shoulder the responsibility, though I was never complicit in the wrongdoing.”

His problem is that precious few – including the Westminster and political media – believe his claims that he was blissfully unaware of widespread use of phone hacking at his paper thought (he’s repeated it so often he might just about believe it himself).

In crisis management terms, how do you concentrate on facts, when your central ‘truth’ is almost universally derided as a fabrication? And what does that do for the notion of ‘transparency’?

In Coulson’s case it has seen him repeat his proclamation of innocence to a Parliamentary committee and under oath in court. Each stake-raising repetition ensnared him further in an unwinnable game of brinkmanship.

What was widely perceived as a fib swelled and swelled like a freakish chewing gum bubble. The bigger it got, the more and more people were going to point and stare – and the only possible outcome was an almighty burst, leaving a horribly messy clean-up job.

There are too many ironies in this story. The fact a tabloid editor who compromised public figures has become a compromised public figure; or the fact the rest of the tabloids have been forced to give the treatment to a story none of them want to report.

But the one which bothers me most is that tabloid breaches of privacy seem tame when compared with the industrial-scale roughshodding of privacy being wrought by the new giants of media.

Though two men were jailed, the NoTW phone hacking has less in common with overt criminality – identity theft, phishing and illegal wiretaps – than it does with the perpetual “privacy” shenanigans on the social web.

As well as industrial scale harvesting and sale of your personal information, the main web giants are regularly running a roving eye through your online laundry.

Google has been censured for gathering sensitive information (the type online crime gangs crave) from unsecured wifi networks. The search giant also stumbled with the launch of Google Buzz, which made public the names of those who Gmail users spent most time corresponding with – irrespective of whether or not those users wanted their most intimate confidantes revealed.

Google’s privacy transgressions pale alongside those of its upstart rival, Facebook. Despite recent improvements (and much needed simplification) of Facebook privacy settings it is nigh on impossible to keep track of who has access to your data.

When it comes to private or personal messages how confident can you be that Twitter Direct Messages or private correspondence on Facebook or LinkedIn are only ever accessed by the intended recipient? Not very.

There’s a well-worn history of demonising the traditional print media for its prurience, it’s muck-raking and the moral (and sometimes legal) ambiguity of its data gathering techniques.

Yet the masses are throwing themselves at social and search platforms with such alacrity that many observers believe the entire notion of privacy is being consigned to the crapper forever.

None of which will come as any consolation to Andy Coulson – though I bet he’s mightily relieved the timings of his stint in the editor’s chair make it highly unlikely any record was left on Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn.

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3 thoughts on “Coulson’s Last Hope For Crisis Management – At Least Phone Hacking Happened Before Twitter

  1. Thought-provoking post. There’s an interesting link between the trail left by online coverage, comments and conversations and the crisis management process. It means that “tomorrow’s fish and chip paper” is a redundant concept. Consequently the requirement to proactively manage crises and get involved in the discussion is more pressing than ever. Fail to do that and the stain on reputation remains visible forever.

    PR professionals all too often fail to apply good practice to themselves (I’ve lost count of the number of PR agencies who’ve told me that they don’t do their own PR very well!. In this case, it’s damaged the reputation of not just Coulson and Cameron, but, by association, the reputation of other PR professionals who are valiantly trying to overcome the stereotypical “spin doctor” image.

    More thoughts in my own blog posting:

    http://insigniatalks.com/2011/01/own-goal-for-the-communication-profession-as-coulson-goes/

    Jonathan Hemus
    http://www.insigniatalks.com

  2. There is another possibility here: that Coulson didn’t know. I know of one Dep News Ed who used to make sure his reporters knew never, never to tell the News Ed or higher-ups how they got the stories, especially if it was dodgy (phone taps, pulling phone bills and so on), just stress that the source was good, get a payment sorted out somewhere and deal with it, keeping the bosses in the clear. (kind of. Because most news eds would know something was happening, even if they didn’t know the specifics)

    • Hi Craig,
      As a good Celtic man, you’ll be familiar with that painful slogan: “Jock Stein knew”?
      I think we can apply simliar to the newspaper age – Andy Coulson knew.
      Cheers mucker.

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