Too little too late: Crisis out of control

July 11, 2011

Eric Rabe, Fels Senior Advisor

 With Sunday’s edition, London’s notorious 168 year-old News of the World closed, the most obvious victim of Britain’s cell phone hacking scandal.  So the paper won’t get to cover a story it would have loved: the squirming of Britain’s conservative coalition government to survive the same scandal.

Prime Minister David Cameron is vulnerable for two reasons.  For years he (like others in power) looked the other way hoping the cell phone scandal would disappear, and, as Cameron admitted, not wanting to confront the press.  Furthermore, Cameron’s former communications director, Andy Coulson, was editor of the News of the World at a time when some of the worst privacy invasion happened.  Yet Cameron accepted that a single rogue reporter was responsible and that Coulson knew nothing about the hacking.  Coulson was arrested on July 8.  








Andy Coulson

On the same day, Cameron held an extraordinary news conference hoping to control the crisis and promising two separate investigations and that “no stone will be left unturned.”

It won’t be enough.

For more than 30 years, I’ve covered or managed crisis in business and government as a journalist and a corporate communications executive.  There is no such thing as managing crisis by catch-up.









David Cameron arrives at Friday's news conference

Allegations that cell phone hacking in Britain is widespread go back to 2003 adding to charges of tabloid pay-offs for information from police, tabloids luring the unsuspecting into financial or sexual indiscretion, photographers lurking in the get the idea. 

Hacking turned out to be the easiest of all.  Birth date?  Street address?   Part of a cell phone number?  Guess right and you have the password for a cell phone voice mailbox.  If that’s too tough, subscribe to an Internet service that provides “Caller ID spoofing” and, with a little work, automate the process.  In either case, you can quickly tune into the voice mail conversations of the rich and famous, and, if you’re a London Sunday tabloid, print any salacious details you might find recorded there.

But Britain’s public, avid readers of the tabloids, may have had enough.  Last week the Internet lit up with castigation after the revelation that the News of the World hacked the phones of, not just the rich and famous, but also servicemen killed abroad and even the phone of teenager Milly Dowler after she disappeared in 2002 but before she was found murdered. 

The Guardian newspaper, London competitor to News Corp’s NoW, The Times and The Sun, delightedly is blogging minute-by-minute developments.  Opposition Labor party leaders are calling for resignations. 

For Cameron and his government, the scandal is out of control.  It’s a classic of crisis mismanagement born of the single biggest challenge when crisis hits: recognizing that a crisis is indeed happening. 

A sense of outrage and an attempt to get to the bottom of the scandal, discover its causes, fix responsibility and put effective safeguards in place when Cameron came to office last year would have been a bold stroke.  Surely some would have challenged such diligence as an attempt to muzzle Britain’s famously un-muzzled press, and the tabloids would certainly have followed past practice and pilloried their accusers in their pages.

Yet the truest guide in a crisis is a solidly fixed ethical compass and the will to follow where it leads.   Cameron’s failure to act not only opened the door for the crisis now facing his government, but for many it also calls into question the government’s judgment and its ability to deal with other challenges.

The only chance to contain a crisis is immediately, when it happens.  Public opinion grows by small steps at first, but in the Internet age, opinion spreads exponentially and the cycle time is lightening fast.  If executives fail to act, ignore signs of risk, fail to read the pulse of their constituents, hope for the best, and persist in assuming that the worst is over, they are setting themselves up for catastrophe of the sort the Cameron government faces today. 


On July 12, 2011, the New York Times posted a video clip pointing out the scandal impact on Cameron's government.

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