Believe it or not in 1896, the Kansas and Texas Railway needed to attract more customers. The railroad CEO, William Crush, was entrusted to find a creative resolution for this commercial dilemma. His solution was to create what we now call an experiential PR event. He constructed a temporary city and had two trains go full speed in a head-on collision for all to watch. True. The PR stunt culminated with the two trains colliding, the force exploding their respective boilers. Debris flew everywhere, including into the crowd. Three people were killed, countless more were injured. Unbelievably there were lots of headlines but no negative publicity for the event. Amazingly, this crazy stunt has been eclipsed by an equally risky stunt to close a British tabloid institution
Yesterday was a momentous day for British journalism and of course the PR industry. We are now sitting on the edge of the biggest scandal ever seen in the media. The ripples will swamp other newspapers. The world's biggest English speaking Sunday tabloid newspaper is dead. Rupert Murdoch's action to try and halt the hurricane sweeping through his empire by taking a Butcher's cleaver to his own corporate flesh was a deliberate act of filicide. The outcome is a clear sign that huge Tectonic plates are shifting in British newspapers. Murdoch in effect has cut off a financial pit prop to his empire. The News of the World's closure is the equivalent of amputating a gangrenous limb - it saves the BSkyB deal and even the Sun so it's not hyperbole to describe it as the greatest publicity stunt of a generation.
It seems clear from the events of recent days - especially the confusion and contradictory messages front the News International camp, that it was struggling to thwart the meltdown of the brand and counter the attracted opprobrium. The move to close it and thereby protect the brand took my breath away. As a veteran voyeur, I've seen some of Murdoch's extraordinary events committed in Fleet Street but this has to be the most astonishing. I am unable to work out if its a masterstroke or a gesture of panic. It's hard not to see it, but I can only suggest that this was a ruthless, brutal and cynical publicity stunt. Unfortunately the action some see as attempt to put a lid back on the box has failed because the lid perished some time ago. The tactic used is obtuse. A million monkeys at a million typewriters might produce a weekly edition of the News of the World , but one orangutan with severe head trauma could come up with a better PR strategy.
Of course there is another scenario in the slow cooker. It's likely that the News of the World will be revived under a new name, perhaps Sun on Sunday", without the accompanying resignation of Mrs Brooks and other executives. It's a publicity stunt, pure and simple. And what everyone misses is that the people who started this - the advertisers, the British Legion, the readers - don't want the brand killed off. They want the scalps of the executives. They want to see those responsible hung out to dry. If it is reborn under a new rebrand a rabid bloodlust will return.
Teflon skinned executives have survived the first shock waves. The afternoon gossip frenzy was like a Las Vegas casino of of slot machines overdosing on steroids. Surprisingly Max Clifford was the first to try and calm the storm by offering emollient words in defence of Rebekah Brooks. But somehow the noise levels of the scandal volume became deafening as more people began to see how serious this was.
I believe it's the beginning of the end of the celebrated British Sunday tabloid press. The likes of John Terry, Wayne Rooney and the various arrogant cabal of misbehaving showbiz celebrities will not be pursued in the same way. The tabloid life force has been castrated.
I guess I've had the last Friday or Saturday call from a triumphant journalist who thinks he's nailed one of my misbehaving clients. The ramifications of the closure include the end of the cavalier, buccaneering Sunday hack hell bent on making a dent into a celebrity brand. No more unarmed combat, no more late night worry. No more long Sundays working out how to spin a positive Monday morning news agenda. It's the end of having to creatively attempt to turn a disaster into an opportunity. I will miss the banter, stress and frantic mind sapping manoeuvres.
The big question is, will competing titles have the resources to exploit the absent News of the World? The spirit will be willing but the financial resources are weak. Smug PR folk might be rubbing their hands with glee at the onset of a gentler age, but those that do miss the point. Its' a bad day for us all. One seriously negative side to this volcanic press scandal is watching John Prescott in full flight. Could the closure precipitate something worse? Will we see a pack of cards tumbling into an Escher Tower of Babel? Jerry Seinfeld said people who read the tabloids deserve to be lied to. The American comic misses the point. Over the last few years the News Of the World has been a pretty damn good title. I have a number of good friends who worked there. It's an outrage that any of them have lost their jobs for mistakes made by previous regimes. The chess master Nigel Short once said "A good sacrifice is one that is not necessarily sound but leaves your opponent dazed and confused" The ongoing PR meltdown will be be expedited by these wronged hacks hell bent on revenge for being treated like some dumb sacrifices. One tweet doing the rounds on Twitter summed up the feelings of the disposed "They just f*cked off a bunch of ruthless reporters with an axe to grind". Will they merely be seen as canon fodder in a corporate master plan?
So watch this space, there are plenty more episodes left in this hot new mini series.
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