The words ‘frying pan’ and ‘fire’ spring to mind when describing Guto Harri’s move from director of external affairs for London Mayor Boris Johnson to News International as director of communications and corporate affairs two years ago. And even the former BBC political correspondent uses a fire-related analogy to describe the move, which took place the week after Johnson had been re-elected Mayor.
‘I sometimes think, rather hyperbolically, that it was rather like a fireman walking into a burning building when everybody else was walking out,’ he says.
As the rebranded News UK this month officially moves into its new ‘Baby Shard’ headquarters on the south bank of London’s Thames, the building – which was opened by Johnson – is no longer ‘burning’. Yet following the verdicts in the court case against former News of the World editor and David Cameron’s spin doctor Andy Coulson (guilty) and former News International chief executive Rebekah Brooks (not guilty), a handful of embers still linger.
‘The court case came and went, and clearly there will be others that will be tricky for certain individuals,’ concedes Harri. ‘But these are a distraction. The dominant story, on which we focus our energy, is on our future and our award-winning journalism.’
It is this focus on ‘award-winning journalism’ that has been the main thrust of Harri’s efforts to rebuild the reputation of News UK and restore the pride of its employees.
Harri arrived at an organisation where even former chief executive Tom Mockridge, who had recruited him, had reached a point where he was ‘frustrated and increasingly angry’ at the comments levied at him against News International. ‘He was sick of being stopped at Passport Control and having someone say Chief executive of News International? Oh dear,’ he says.
‘There was a stigma to working here. People had forgotten what was great about this company. Virtually everybody who worked here was seen as a bad person. The tenor of coverage was negative. Politicians were reluctant to do anything with us. Journalists were getting attacked at dinner parties.’
Staff were demoralised. ‘It was so out of character. When you enter The Sun’s offices, the first thing you see are the words Stand tall, you’re entering Sun country.’
The first public step that Harri took was to give an interview to The Guardian, the newspaper where journalist Nick Davies had first broken the phone hacking story.
‘I said the majority of journalists were world class, at the top of their profession and really nice people and that they deserved somebody to stand up for them,’ he recalls. ‘I said that it was not fair to tarnish an entire company with the same soggy brush that is applied to a handful of people and that there was little justification for general contempt.’
News International’s own research had already revealed the impact of the external opprobrium. Just eight per cent of staff would have recommended the company as a great place to work, 38 per cent of business leaders were less likely to partner with News International while 71 per cent of political decision makers and opinion formers wanted more action taken by and against the company. ‘They didn’t think we had done enough. They thought there ought to be tougher regulation,’ says Harri. ‘But the most disturbing finding to me was the one about our staff. They were at the heart of this organisation. They are the single most important audience, followed by potential recruits. My main focus was on restoring composure and slowly rebuilding the morale and self-confidence of individuals and the corporation.’
Harri, who spent 18 years at the BBC, adds: ‘I’m not a scientific PR practitioner. I’m a storyteller. I said We’ve got to put the titles centre stage and to talk constantly and consistently about our world class, award-winning journalism. We need to do profiles of our people on our intranet and website.’
It was a great idea but, until that point, the intranet merely related that day’s menu in the staff canteen and the times of the shuttle bus to London Bridge station. Similarly, the company’s external website contained minimal information. The last press release on the news section was dated October; Harri started nine months later in June. ‘I looked at the website and I couldn’t even see who my colleagues were. There was no mission statement. There was no information,’ he adds.
Ironically, for a media company, the problem stemmed from News International’s unwillingness to tell its story, either to its employees or to the outside world. ‘It could be that newspaper companies assume that their papers speak for themselves,’ explains Harri, rather diplomatically. ‘Or that the journalistic culture is sceptical about internal communications.’
Whatever the reason, this uncommunicative stance meant that the predominant stories on News International were about hacking or bribery allegations. ‘Undoubtedly we suffered. When I was approached about the role, I Googled ‘News International’ and rarely found anything but bad news about hacking. Ideally, I wanted to get us off the front pages and back onto the business pages,’ he says.
‘The dominant culture was ‘no comment’ and ‘we’re not doing media’, but that doesn’t mean media won’t do us. I had to combat that culture of ‘no comment’. Even in the most awful story you can smuggle in a little silver lining. Ninety per cent of the story may be about what went wrong, but you can smuggle in a line about every member of staff receiving training [to prevent this happening again]. If you always say ‘no comment’ then you are not even laying the foundations for rebuilding your reputation.’
Today, Harri’s communications team know the rule: anyone who says ‘no comment’ has to buy drinks for their colleagues. ‘The majority of my team are new,’ he concedes. ‘I brought them in. Their attitude is much more proactive than what was here before. Every enquiry should be seen as an opportunity for us to start telling our story.’
Shortly after arriving, Harri started to overhaul and rebuild the intranet and external website. ‘We set out to celebrate every gong that came into the building – journalists’ wins, marketing, commercial – and to remind everybody what we are about. You can’t say that often enough. We have the most trusted and admired titles – The Times and Sunday Times – and the biggest selling daily newspaper The Sun.’
A new section Our Top Talent on the website carries profiles of staff, while both internally and externally the company started to draw attention to the good things its people did. ‘We wanted to show that there were good journalists and good people. There is a section on the intranet about our ‘Give As You Earn’ scheme [launched in 2012], and every month somebody will write about why they chose their particular charity.’
But the arrival of Mike Darcey as chief executive in January 2013 gave a new impetus to Harri’s efforts. ‘His support from day one was phenomenal. He had a real sense of drive and methodical purpose. He wrote a piece on charitable donations. He did volunteering – staff can spend up to four days a year volunteering – in the local community. He led by example. He spelled out a sense of vision for the future of the company and its business strategy,’ says Harri. ‘When you have a chief executive who is very clear about the importance of carrying staff with you and communicating to them and the outside world, that makes a huge difference.’
Darcey set out to communicate his strategy to every single member of staff, and a formal structure was put in place to effect this. Every quarter, the top 100 people across the entire UK and Ireland business meet for a presentation of the financial results with the opportunity to quiz Darcey on any aspect.
These top people are tasked with cascading their insights back to their departments. Darcey also introduced a monthly lunch for between ten and 12 members of staff ‘where you might find a printer sitting next to a secretary or the chief financial officer; over two years, you get through a lot of people’, says Harri.
Other initiatives include a monthly town hall meeting, open to all staff, where two members of the executive team will answer any questions. ‘Mike also visited every part of the business, from the news rooms to the printing presses, to explain his strategy,’ adds Harri.
Daily updates were posted on the intranet. An internal tabloid We’re News was launched. Darcey sent regular emails to staff, carrying both good and bad news. He hosted a drinks reception for award nominees and winners.
The external audience was not neglected. ‘I took the approach that no target is too small. When Mike did voluntary work in the community, I briefed the local newspapers. He did an interview with Management Today. He started to give speeches.’ Darcey started to host business breakfasts for senior politicians and chief executives where they would ‘kick ideas around and exchange thoughts’.
When the Leveson Inquiry published its report into the culture and ethics of Britain’s media, News UK became the first newspaper organisation to sign up to the new press regulator the Independent Press Standards Organisation (Ipso).
‘By the end of Leveson, I think other newspapers had cottoned onto the fact that it wasn’t just us. I saw us go from the poster child for bad behaviour to a team player in an industry determined to put its house in order. We got stuck into the creation of Ipso and saw off the threat of state regulation. We made it clear that we do think a robust free press should be responsible and needed a strong independent regulator.’
The debate also offered an opportunity for News UK to explain the strategy underlying the imposition of paywalls. ‘Having a debate about our business strategy is far more preferable than sitting back and reading about what went wrong,’ says Harri. ‘And today, three years after introducing the paywall for The Times, our readership is growing. Instead of people making random purchases, there is a growing proportion committing to annual subscriptions.
‘We started to invite journalists into briefings. They were surprised that they were being invited to meet senior people, but they had an hour to probe and ask their questions. We hosted bloggers’ breakfasts, and said Here you are, it’s the editor of The Sun and his head of marketing. We held a media reception hosted by Mike Darcey where beforehand at least two colleagues warned that I would get fired if it backfired. But these were all steps to signal the significant change in culture. They signalled our new openness and willingness to engage in the outside world.’
The actions were not lost on Roy Greenslade, writer for The Guardian, and one of News UK’s most vocal critics. Last December he wrote a blog highlighting the new openness by drawing on the example of a press conference, which Greenslade said ‘exhibited a strategic change in direction at senior management level, a desire to explain itself to the world that has played almost no part in its previous incarnation’.
For Harri, the article highlighted that his strategy was paying off. ‘Greenslade was our toughest critic in a hostile newspaper environment; that was a hell of an endorsement,’ he says. ‘All PR has to be rooted in reality. Substance is what matters so, if we have turned around our story, it’s because we have genuinely changed. And our staff surveys were also showing that the strategy was working.’
The impact of staff morale has been noticeable. In April, an internal survey revealed that 68 per cent of staff were optimistic about the future, up 44 percentage points from a year earlier, while 77 per cent understood the company’s objectives, up 17 percentage points, and 96 per cent were prepared to ‘go the extra mile’.
But there was no time to rest on any laurels, as the high profile court case involving Coulson and Brooks had already started, and was providing copy on a daily basis. And, in a further sign of its new transparent approach, even The Times reported on the trial.
‘By the time we got to the Old Bailey, we had got to a better place. Two thirds of our senior executives had changed. There were new editors on all our papers. We had a new parent company and new leadership. Our name change in June last year was significant. I think News International became a household name for all the wrong reasons. A parent company for a popular newspaper and a trusted title should never be a household name,’ says Harri. ‘The name change represented a subtle but significant shift. All references to News International [in the court case] were directed at a company that is no longer in existence.
‘Clearly, we had to ringfence the problems of the past and make sure they didn’t dominate morale and coverage and that they didn’t dominate people’s time. As a communications team, there is very little we could say about the court case so 90 per cent of our efforts went into telling a parallel story about the company, like the fact that we had signed a 30 year lease on a new building which is a real sign of our owner’s commitment to make this a success.
‘But we were also able to say that we were comfortable with our new policies and procedures, and that we had changed the leadership.’
When the court case against singer Tulisa Contostavlos was thrown out in July, amid accusations that the Sun on Sunday’s undercover reporter Mazher Mahmood – the ‘Fake Sheikh’ – had committed perjury, coverage also focused on how News UK was trying to change.
‘If there is a lesson for others, I think it is that putting staff at the heart of any turnaround plan is key. We have to know: Who are we? What do we do? If you make the fundamental mistake of not engaging then you let others tell the story for you, filling the vacuum. And your detractors are never going to give you a fair hearing.
‘When I look at Barclays, they did pretty much everything we did but at twice the speed. They indicated Fit in or f*** off. I am not naturally a patient person, but there is a huge difference between dealing with a lot of highly-paid bankers and 2,500 journalists, with their extensive networks.
‘I took the view that the turnaround would take two to three years, and that it would be baby steps. There are extremely sensitive issues at play when trying to move a company forward. This company has a great heritage and a proud legacy, but it has suffered some problems in recent history and a handful of people have been out of order. There is little you can say in the face of criminal prosecutions but you can take the opportunities to communicate and engage, with politicians for example. It is about gaining a sense of perspective.
‘I regard myself as a bit of a layman. I feel rather like a crude impostor next to polished practitioners, who would want to bring in structure and word clouds. I still feel like a journalist who has just moved along the food chain. But 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.’
SIX POLICIES INTRODUCED BY NEWS UK
1) Anti-bribery policy
2) Whistleblowing policy
3) Gifts and hospitality policy
4) Private investigators’ policy
5) Workplace conduct policy
THE NEXT GENERATION
Creating a sustainable model for professional journalism is one of the key themes of News UK’s new mission statement, and the launch of a News Academy in January is part of that initiative.
The Academy’s objective is to help create a future talented workforce for the newspaper industry. News UK has reached out to young people, schools and teachers, creating an online resource that offers career advice written by its journalists and a fortnightly competition for young writers to see their articles published on the site.
Targeted at aspiring journalists aged between 16 and 18, the News Academy also holds a series of conferences across the UK and Ireland offering young people the chance to listen to and interact with News UK’s journalists.
There is also an annual programme of visits by News UK journalists to schools around the country, providing another opportunity for young people to discuss topical issues and receive career guidance.
A week-long summer school at News UK’s Baby Shard headquarters for 15 talented students will also be held every year, culminating with the publication of their own newspaper.