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July 15, 2011

PRSA Chair Comments on News Corp.'s Crisis Communications Respnse

Rosanna M. Fiske, APR, chair and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA), was interviewed by media critic Jay Rosen about the evolving News of the World phone-hacking scandal, and News Corp.'s decision to hire public relations firm Edelman for crisis communications support. In a blog post published July 14, 2011, Fiske engages in the following Q-and-A exchange with Rosen:

What are the risks to Edelman of taking on a client like News Corp. in this situation? (Meaning: a company that has been untruthful in its public statements and seems incapable of investigating what went on within the company.)
The risk is that the public will perceive Edelman as helping a company mask its unethical behavior, or as being unethical itself. The reality, however, may be far from that. PRNewser reports that News Corp. hired Edelman for crisis communications, general communications and public affairs counsel, which are all legitimate business needs, and ones that certainly can be carried out by Edelman staffers in ethical ways.
Edelman has learned some hard, but important, lessons about ethical communications in the past, and it"s worked hard to establish best practices since then. That kind of learning will be invaluable as it counsels News Corp., and may be one of the reasons why Edelman was hired; that is, to lead News Corp. toward more ethical business practices.

Don't you have to be confident that you know what the firm's real story is before you can advise on how to tell that story to the outside world?  How can Edelman have that kind of confidence with this company. How could anyone?
The risk in this case is that News Corp. will not be truthful or forthcoming with the information it gives Edelman, or that the scandal will spread to the United States; at that point, the public will place the blame on all parties involved, Edelman included. But an agency as successful as Edelman almost certainly did not accept this engagement lightly.
The fact is, News Corp. has the right to have its voice heard in the marketplace of ideas, and Edelman has the right to represent News Corp. as a client. However, in accepting the engagement, Edelman also has a responsibility to act ethically, in keeping with its own ethical standards and, we hope, those championed by PRSA. Edelman has a responsibility as well to resign the account if News Corp. insists it to do something unethical, or if Edelman believes the public interest will be harmed by its work for News Corp.
PRSA spoke out about the need for public relations to serve the public interest in a recent letter to the editor of the Financial Times, following reports that the Monitor Group in Boston was working on behalf of the Libyan government.

How does a firm like Edelman judge the possible risk to itself, to its own reputation, of taking on such a client?
The reality is that Edelman has a great opportunity to help News Corp. turn the page on this scandal and restore the public"s trust in the company. Edelman can mitigate the risk by insisting that News Corp executives, up to and including Rupert Murdoch, communicate openly, honestly and transparently; take responsibility for their actions; show genuine remorse; and commit to changing their news-gathering practices. If News Corp. takes Edelman"s council, and restores its reputation in the process, Edelman will be seen as the hero. If News Corp. is unwilling to take Edelman"s counsel, the agency can walk away from the engagement and still be seen as a hero.
That is what successful and ethical public relations firms do, and we are confident that this is the nature of the counsel that Edelman will be providing to News Corp.
Rosanna Fiske
Chair and CEO
Public Relations Society of America

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