Has News trumped Fairfax in the brand reputation war?

By Duncan Craig | 21 June 2012

As news makers, you would expect Fairfax and News Limited to execute shock developments around their own brands with a degree of aplomb.

In the battle of the media brands, News Limited has won this week, because they had the 'forward momentum', while Fairfax commentary focused on the failure of management to adapt over the past decade. However, the brand management battle has just started, and reputation experts say that it will come down to how well the restructuring at both media companies is executed.

Even at the time of writing, news is leaking out from Rupert Murdoch's local newspapers that the axe is starting to fall, and management have commenced a ruthless cull of staff positions.

“It could be argued that News Limited to date has won the 'issues framing battle' whilst Fairfax has won the 'transparency' issue,” said Ogilvy PR chief executive Kieran Moore.

News Limited seems to be trying to keep the scale and shape of its job cuts as private as possible.

“They are both going to clearly struggle with managing these large-scale redundancies,” said Gabriel McDowell, a crisis and reputation management expert, who is managing director of top corporate PR agency Res Publica. “Fairfax have communicated more explicitly the scale of the job cuts, while News Limited is yet to divulge that information.”

In other words, Fairfax took the biggest brand hit because they had more negative news to share, while News Limited were meticulous and slick, and possibly better managed from the top down. News Limited also had more 'clear air' because they don't have a disgruntled major investor.

“The Fairfax cuts were more of a shock also because they had numbers attached to them, with 1900 jobs to disappear, and because of the death knell for the broadsheet, and musings about whether the SMH and The Age would even survive in the future in print form,” said Moore.

As the redundancies program commences, the true colour of their corporate brand and culture will become apparent.

“There is no easy way to make the announcements that either side had to make,” said Terri-Helen Gaynor, managing director of Sydney-based public relations agency Reputation. Gaynor also said it's too early to make a call on which media company has won the brand battle this week, as it will come down to how they manage lay-offs, and implement changes.

Equally important will be the challenge of maintaining quality media output while also seeking to roll out new digital systems and content.

“How do you keep your service standards up and continue to innovate with technology?,” Gaynor said. “The media companies are also dealing with the emotional state of the people staying on and that is a significant challenge.”

News Limited chief executive Kim Williams broadcast his intentions to every media outlet in Australia via a highly personable video. He also called top advertisers, the Prime Minister, and customers to brief them. They left no room for misunderstandings and confusion. They have already announced the new national management team and a new innovation and integration unit. Staff at News were briefed by middle and departmental managers.

“Kim Williams communicated very well by his choice of medium,” said McDowell. “In his video address he didn't neglect to have their major print titles on his desk. He showed the future is both digital and print. However the proof will be in how well they execute their strategy and they will have to continue to pay attention to detail in terms of how they communicate (to staff).”

News Limited also triumphantly reminded everyone they sold 11 million copies of their city newspapers a week, while Fairfax were forced to finally announce they were going to down-size to the compact tabloid format. Self-touted as the providers of high-brow independent journalism, Fairfax simply had further to fall, and their own brand story was harder to control.

“There appeared to be lot more 'messaging' around the News Limited announcement,” said Moore.”The likely changes were leaked a few days before to brace stakeholders, no job loss numbers were included, and the Foxtel and Eureka Media acquisitions arguably softened the bad news story.”

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