Rebekah Brooks returned as chief executive of Rupert Murdoch’s UK newspaper operation last week – just over a year after being cleared of phone hacking charges. Her re-hire has surprised industry onlookers, even though four years have passed since news of the phone hacking scandal first broke prompting her resignation.
With her career seemingly back on track, her reputation is likely to take longer to recover however. Reacting to news of her appointment last weekend, Mark Hanna, former head of security at News Corp, threatened to speak out about his version of events and the CPS has yet to decide whether it will bring corporate charges against the former news organisation. Either eventuality could seriously dent her reputation for a second time.
From a PR perspective, the thing that is most difficult to take about Brooks’ fall from grace and subsequent reinstatement is that in her role as chief executive, she should have known what was going on at the organisation and the practices being used by staff to do their jobs. Admitting to not knowing anything about such matters is tantamount to a declaration of incompetence. And the fact that Murdoch has chosen to reward her incompetence in this way is bound to raise questions.
She may have her job back, but from a reputational perspective, Brooks still has a lot to prove. So where should she start?
Getting on with the job is going to be important in the first instance. This means re-engaging with staff and listening to what they think is working and not working. Demonstrating that she is not frightened to take difficult and sometimes unpopular decisions could also help to underline her leadership capabilities. The early weeks will be a testing time for her internally at News UK and she will need to demonstrate strong leadership in order to win the trust and support of her management team.
Brooks should also consider adopting a zero tolerance approach to rogue reporting and be prepared to speak publicly about why doing things the right way matters. In the medium and longer term, this will be essential if she is going to defeat the sceptics in her industry and beyond.
In the longer term, she should aim to become famous for something else, so her legacy to the world of journalism is a more positive one. By using some of the £16m pay-off she received from News Corp at the time of her resignation to start up a foundation for talented young reporters, or some other cause that she feels passionate about, she could start to earn back some of the reputational credits she has lost.
For brand owners that have suffered reputational damage, it would be worth keeping an eye on what Brooks does next. If she takes the right actions and communicates clearly, she could have an extremely positive future ahead of her, but the worst thing she could do is to think that just getting her job back means everything is alright.
Greg Aris is a director of Smarts Illuminate