From financial crises to sexual misconduct, cyber hacks and data breaches to bad player interference, there is no shortage of the types of scandal and trial that can befall corporations, governments and individuals.
News outlets will cover them all – and, like clockwork, PR advisers will scramble to advise companies on how to react from a communications perspective. But, occasionally, a news outlet will face a scandal of its own. And it presents an entirely new dilemma: how should it cover it?
For its corporate bosses, their business is to protect the organisation’s commercial and reputational future – and to resolve the matter with minimal media spotlight. The last thing they want is to put out headlines with vast reach, which could spotlight problems, spook investors, customers and employees, and see share prices plummet.
Broadcasters on their own: From Sharp to Schofield
The BBC is no stranger to reputational challenges. The organisation “missed chances to stop abuse” when it came to Jimmy Savile; “showed clear failings” when it came to Martin Bashir, over whom it will further face an information tribunal after withholding more than 3,000 internal emails linked to the journalist; and saw its editorial independence questioned and chairman Richard Sharp resign after it emerged that Sharp had not disclosed his knowledge of Boris Johnson’s finances and had attempted to broker a meeting for a businessman with the ex-PM.
Yet, as each story broke, its journalists covered the inquiries into Savile, Bashir and Sharp at length.
Like the BBC before it, ITV is now running its own gauntlet at the hands of its editorial teams, who have been covering allegations of a “toxic culture” on This Morning and the departure of long-time presenter Phillip Schofield after he engaged in an affair with a younger male colleague, reportedly deceived his media bosses, co-presenter Holly Willoughby, and agency YMU, and cast the future of his show and co-star in doubt – each headline providing an excruciating level of detail and any one of which would constitute a PR crisis.
Broadcast vs print: Avoiding the spotlight
In some ways, ITV and the BBC are not at liberty to not cover their controversies. Regulated by Ofcom, broadcasters must meet a set level of impartiality and transparency. Being taxpayer funded, the BBC has also always encountered particularly stringent public scrutiny.
Free to be more partial, print outlets appear less bound to covering their own PR crises. But, in high-profile circumstances, it can be in their interest. For example, following the Ukraine war and increased attention on Johnson’s relationship with its proprietor, the Russian oligarch Evgeny Lebedev, the Evening Standard published comment from Lebedev to assuage its readership and, presumably, commercial partners.
However, in another recent case, The Guardian has yet to directly report on allegations that it “covered up” Observer columnist Nick Cohen’s #MeToo row, for all it underwent external investigation and has apologised to victims.
Transparency as a PR strategy: How media bosses can react to a crisis
It may appear dichotomic, but in ITV’s response to Schofield there is arguably a reputational gain to be had – if not a direct PR strategy at play – and a number of learnings for media executives facing similar challenges.
In underscoring that ITV, his agency, and the Prince’s Trust had dropped Schofield, ITV distanced itself from its former star (even as it highlighted and benefited from his emphatic denials of a toxic culture).
By publishing that ITV previously “found no evidence” for wrongdoing, co-star Holly Willoughby’s assertion that she did not know and found the alleged lies “hurtful”, and that This Morning will go on, ITV regained control of the narrative, reasserting ignorance and protecting other star vehicles.
Lastly, by publishing ITV boss Dame Carolyn McCall’s statement in full, speaking to MPs in a committee hearing which saw McCall deny that the organisation turned “a blind eye”, and announcing that lawyers will investigate, ITV offered transparency, accountability, and cooperation.
To announce an external, independent investigation also has several further outcomes. When the alleged wrongdoer is a senior figurehead, companies may struggle to show that internal investigations are free from bias or influence. Internal investigators may feel unable to investigate their superiors without fear of repercussion – or may simply be perceived as lacking independence (regardless of the rigour of their investigation).
By bringing in an external specialist, such as a law firm (or, in The Guardian’s case, workplace consultancy Howlett Williams), to investigate, the investigator is seen to be acting fairly and objectively.
Secondly, now able to say, “it would be wrong to comment further until the review has been completed”, the organisation can buy itself time to prepare for the outcome of the review (by which time, the media furore will have lessened). Finally, in the case of ITV, which saw share prices drop by more than 2%, announcing a review can reassure the City, with share prices quickly recovering.
How much transparency is too much?
Some media consumers have seen ITV’s coverage as overkill. There have been many social media comments, for example, noting that this is “only” a TV presenter and that no crime is alleged to have been committed. More concerningly, others have used the words “witch hunt”, with suggestions that, had Schofield’s affair been a heterosexual one, the reaction would have been less heated.
Some consider that ITV’s response, delivered in part by Holly Willoughby and other daytime presenters, has been heavy handed and sanctimonious. But in some ways, This Morning could not win. Talent couldn’t afford to not acknowledge Schofield’s sudden absence – a long-time presenter who had underpinned the show’s identity for 20 years.
But whereas the Newsnight team, for example, likely did not know Sharp personally and thus benefited from the separation between corporate and editorial when reporting on him, Alison Hammond’s visible emotion on the issue saw ITV accused of “traumatising” the colleagues now having to disassociate themselves from Schofield. However, Willoughby’s lack of emotion equally invited ridicule. Perhaps it would have been better if This Morning had been taken off-air for the summer, returning in due course with a new look and team.
If anything can be taken from this, it’s perhaps that, while a media organisation’s journalists and PR advisers may have different goals in mind when it reports on itself and different stakeholders to engage (from press regulators and audiences to the markets and commercial partners), the outcome is the same. Because for both, the news is a media organisation’s lifeblood and what keeps it going – and what is a crisis if not news?
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