Murdoch testimony fails to get ahead of scandal

The three-hour testimony from Rupert Murdoch, and his son James, in front of a British parliamentary committee was a missed opportunity to defend their media empire, communications experts say.

News Corp. execs didn't make the case for change

James Murdoch, left, and Rupert Murdoch, give evidence to the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee on the News of the World phone-hacking scandal on July 19. (Associated Press)

The three-hour testimony from Rupert Murdoch, and his son James, in front of a British parliamentary committee was a missed opportunity to defend their media empire, communications experts say.

The two News Corp. executives, along with former News of the World chief editor Rebekah Brooks, were grilled by U.K. MPs Tuesday about what they knew about the widening phone-hacking scandal.

Instead, the Murdochs will likely face increasing criticism over what they knew about the illegal operations of the British tabloid.

Goldy Hyder, from Hill and Knowlton, said both News Corp. executives should have spent more time explaining what they are going to do now to fix the problem, apart from shuttering News of the World.

"I would say it was a lost opportunity to repeat what they've already said publicly: That they're sorry and they got it wrong," Hyder, general manager of the PR company's Ottawa offices, said.

They should have spent more time saying "this has to be cleaned up and here's what we're going to do next," he said.

This would have gone a long way towards restoring their credibility, Mia Pearson, co-founder of PR firm North Strategic, notes.

"In the end, if they had taken a stronger stance on how they are going to fix this going forward they would have earned more confidence from the public," she said.

No sense of accountability

Jeffrey Dvorkin, executive director of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, said both Rupert and James Murdoch failed to offer convincing reasons to believe that they knew little about what was going on at the British tabloid.

It's unlikely that senior executives would have had so little knowledge, he said.

"I find it a little astonishing that there is so much denial going on here," Dvorkin said in an interview on CBC News Network. "There is no sense that there is any obligation to the organization, to their employees, and I think most importantly for a media organization, to the public.

"There is no sense of real accountability."

It was only at the end of the testimony when the older Murdoch seemed to own up to the transgressions and suggested he would be able to right the now upturned News Corp., Dvorkin said.

But it was unclear, Dvorkin said, whether Murdoch can accomplish that feat.

"It will be interesting to see if the board of [News Corp.] agrees with him and allows him to stay on," he said.

Different approaches

Hyder said the testimony relied too much on a continual denial of responsibility with both Murdochs saying they had little idea what was going on at News of the World.

And from a communication perspective both presented themselves in entirely different ways. 

Rupert Murdoch was short in his replies, continually relying on "no" or "nope," while his son spent time going into the minutia of specific details.

Pearson said the younger Murdoch was mostly confident throughout, his tone uniform and his manner respectful.

But his body language changed when he faced tough questioning about payments to phone-hacking victims, she said.

He stuttered and lost eye contact with the parliamentary committee, Pearson said.

Rupert Murdoch, on the other hand, "came across with a casual arrogance, almost the sense that this was a nuisance, with [News of the World] being only one per cent of his business," she said.

Pearson said he looked down when addressing MPs and appeared disinterested at points.

Making case for change critical

Hyder said he was surprised at how the two Murdochs acted during their testimony, noting the two had largely stuck to what appeared to be a crisis communication plan after hiring PR firm Edelman early in the crisis.

"I feel like there has been a shift from how they responded on day one to how they responded when they got professional help to how they're responding today," he said on Tuesday.

Whether it was the stress of the preceding weeks or advice from lawyers, the two seemed off their message, Hyder said.

"For whatever reason they chose to take a different tack," he said.

The failure to focus on the future will likely harm the public image of Rupert Murdoch and his company, Daniel Tisch, president and CEO of Argyle Communications, said.

"Trying to make a case for change is the most critical thing you can do in a crisis and that was their weak point," Tisch said.

"It wasn't simply unclear, it was absent."

And any damage to reputation comes with a financial cost to the Murdoch empire.

"The biggest problem is that he didn't make a case for change: what will he and News Corp do differently in the future?" Tisch said.

"His future as CEO may depend on the answer to that question," he said.