Director of communications and corporate affairs
The timing of Guto Harri’s arrival at News International two years ago had many observers scratching their heads. The company, subsequently rebranded as News UK, was then in the eye of a media storm, with many key employees accused of phone hacking and bribery. Its flagship Sunday newspaper News of the World had closed the previous year after a flurry of articles about its illegal activities, which led to the withdrawal of 33 advertisers.
Politicians were shunning the organisation they once feted. And staff morale was at an all-time low.
Harri, who had previously worked as head of external affairs for Boris Johnson, and had just overseen his successful re-election as London Mayor, even described it as ‘walking into a burning building when every else was walking out’.
But he arrived with the view that not everybody who worked at the News of the World was corrupt, and that News International employed many extremely talented, world-class journalists. He saw himself as the person to stand up for them and fight for their cause.
His focus was on restoring composure and, in turn, rebuilding the morale and self-confidence of individuals and the company. His strategy was simple: the business of News International was storytelling. With his background in journalism – Harri spent 18 years at the BBC, including a stint covering the collapse of communism in East Germany – Harri was also a storyteller.
The company therefore needed to tell its story, to share its successes and highlight its strengths.
But, in a delicious twist of irony, the media company was unwilling to communicate with the media. Harri slowly started to put in place a strategy to change that stance. He put together a new media relations team who were governed by one rule: if they said ‘no comment’ to a journalist’s request, they had to buy drinks for their colleagues.
‘His team is very good,’ said one insider. Harri also believes it to be the most diverse team in media relations, ‘which is not what people would expect from News UK’.
Every opportunity to engage with the external world was viewed as an opportunity to lay the foundations for the rebuilding of News International’s reputation. In every story, as Harri puts it, there is the chance to ‘smuggle in a silver lining’.
When he realised that The Guardian was reporting, virtually word-for-word, internal memos, Harri ensured that they were written with at least one self-congratulatory comment, such as ‘award-winning journalists’, and in this way smuggled positive coverage into a critical newspaper.
With a new chief executive Mike Darcey who was willing to communicate, Harri took the approach that no target was too small. Local newspapers were briefed about voluntary initiatives in their areas. Interviews were given with trade magazines. A media reception was held, where at least one story was ‘inadvertently leaked’ to a journalist in the knowledge that, if they believed they had a scoop, they couldn’t resist publishing.
Bloggers were invited to breakfast briefings.
And internally, staff started to see the changes. New structures were put in place to ensure information cascaded down from the chief executive’s office to as far as the printing presses. An internal tabloid, edited by a former sub on The Sun, now working for the media relations team, was launched. Regular emails shared good and bad news.
Today, the strategy appears to be working. Staff morale has risen, and continues to do so. Media commentators have noticed, and write about, the changes. Politicians are starting to engage once again. And News UK was recognised as the first newspaper group to sign up to the new press regulator, the Independent Press Standards Organisation.
As Harri himself once said: ‘I like to think it is about building staff morale by getting your story straight and constantly telling it. And that has kind of worked, which is all that matters to me. It is the strength of your story that will carry through in the end.’