As he prepared to face a day’s worth of questioning by British lawmakers about the News Corp. phone-hacking crisis, Rupert Murdoch was set to serve up a carefully crafted statement that began,”This is the most humble day of my life.”
But Murdoch was rushed into questioning and had to wait until later to try to work in the line about his newfound diffidence. It was by most accounts a fairly shaky performance, and the legal strategy seemed to trump the PR approach. Although he managed to drop the “humble” line twice, when Murdoch was asked if he felt responsible for the ethical breaches at his companies, his answer was “no.”
Then… the pie. Murdoch was nearly creamed by a plate-throwing protester, and in a video snippet that went viral in moments, was fiercely defended by his much younger wife, Wendi Deng, who instantly leaped up and smacked the attacker as the rest of the group watched in amazement.
Minutes after a brief recess during which the pie-hurler was arrested and Mr. Murdoch wiped clean of foam, the mood seemed to turn. Drama! All eyes were on Ms. Deng as she attacked the attacker – in a slo-mo, badly angled video that was played over and over like a surprise ninth-inning run in a tied-up ball game. Suddenly, Murdoch seemed old, frail, and oddly vulnerable.
Some even thought it a brilliantly orchestrated set-up, planned in advance to turn opinion in Murdoch’s favor. Just days prior, PR-land was buzzing with the news that News Corp had beefed up its internal public relations and crisis management resources by bringing on Edelman to join Steve Rubenstein, son of famed New York PR man Howard Rubenstein, for damage control.
That first step – the hype over Edelman’s hire in the UK – wasn’t a strong start, actually. It came too late and gave the impression of a weak and panicky Murdoch team. And as the questioning began Tuesday, we were all set to watch the smackdown, analyze the crisis management strategy and dissect Murdoch’s prepared statement about his new, humble attitude.
Instead, a slapstick moment probably won the day for the Murdochs, at least in PR terms. I’m convinced it wasn’t planned; the attack was meant to be “just desserts.” But for a few hours, the humble pie was actually was a small slice of face-saving for Murdoch personally, but only against the backdrop of the News Corp. soap opera. That part’s just begun, and the PR reps will have their hands full, as no one’s likely to come out clean.