I was going to write a blog about how companies like News International adopt the PR tactic of ‘stealing thunder’ to limit bad news and sell more things.
But before I could finish, as if to ram home the point, former news international CEO Rebekah Brooks gave a quite brilliant show of how [not] to do it.
Rather than wait for the Crown Prosecution Service to announce that it was bringing charges against her and five others relating to perverting the course of justice, she announced the bad news herself:
In a statement, Brooks and her husband castigated the CPS:
"We deplore this weak and unjust decision after the further unprecedented posturing of the CPS..."
Later in the day (just in time for the prime time evening news slots) she and her husband followed-up with a statement to for TV News cameras:
For a journalist, like Brooks, it probably seems common sense to go for the ‘stealing thunder’ approach, to get the bad news out there on your own terms, before your enemies.
The immediate response on Twitter was interesting. The Mail’s Political Editor, James Chapman, with a hint of irony, hailed it as ‘classy’.
Rebekah Brooks steals thunder of CPS by announcing her own arrest before they do. One more scoop. Got to say, classyBBC correspondent Daniel Sandford called it ‘cheap’ (which I think means basically the same thing).
— James Chapman (Mail) (@jameschappers) May 15, 2012
@jameschappers No not classy. Cheap.
— Daniel Sandford (@BBCDanielS) May 15, 2012
I don’t know what Brooks’ lawyer thought. Nor have I seen any PR heads giving their view.
For what it’s worth, I think Brooks’ act could only be considered ‘tactically’ sound, if staying on top of the 24-7 media agenda was important to some other aim within the context of the impending criminal trial. By pre-empting the CPS and announcing that she had been charged she won a couple of decent headlines and signalled an important message to her supporters in the media and elsewhere.The problem is, this isn’t the end of it and it’s difficult to see how she will be able to keep ahead of the discourse for long. Surely her lawyers will be trying to get her to keep schtum. Or will they?
An organisation has several options when releasing information about a crisis. Perhaps the most common, intuitive position is to say nothing, or deny everything. In the early days of the phone hacking scandal that’s what News International seemed to do. They stuck to the ‘one rogue reporter’ line until a mounting set of allegations, culminating in the details surrounding the court case concerning Milly Dowler, left them with no credibility left. At some point during the summer of 2011 News International must have realised that it needed to start fessing up about a few things. That’s when rumours started about ‘draining the swamp’ in and around Wapping. It was met with a backlash by senior News International journalists.
I understand that the tactic of ‘stealing thunder’ originates in the arena of courtroom rhetoric (happy to be told I'm wrong on this). Lawyers in jury trials have, apparently for a long time, adopted the tactic, particularly when defending dubious clients. So much the better to tell the jury early doors that there’s a stain on your client’s character, rather than leave it to the prosecution, juries don’t like that.
Outisde the courtroom, if you’ve got bad news, the tactic implies it’s better to adopt a journalistic mindset, and look to scoop the hacks. In PR parlance this is known politely as ‘initiating a crisis communication scenario.’ And there’s actually some evidence the tactic works by enhancing the credibility of the person/organisation who fesses up. A study byArpan and Roskos-Ewoldsen concluded that organisations that ‘steal thunder’ are perceived as more credible than those that do not.
According to PR theory the more credible an organisation is perceived to be, the more palatable its messages become, the more palatable its messages the higher the likelihood that customers will continue to buy its product.
By way of illustration (not I stress correlation or causation) latest circulation figures show that 2.4 million people per week buy the Sun on Sunday, just 200,000 less than bought the News of the World before it was closed last year.