· 8 min read · Features

Stop the press: Rebuilding trust at News UK


After the 2011 phone hacking scandal, trust at News UK was at an all time low. How is the company rebuilding employee faith?

Derrick Crowley’s father advised him never to go into HR: “He told me to deal with numbers, not people”. And there may well have been times during his first executive HR position when Crowley wondered why he didn’t listen. When he took on the role of group HR director at what was then News International, publisher of The Sun and The Times, in January 2011, he was “really excited”. “I had a big change agenda, the company was on the brink of a major restructure and I was looking forward to really having an impact on the business,” he recalls.

Instead, that month the Met Police renewed investigations into illegal voicemail interception at the News of the World. By the end of the year, 16 people who had worked for the paper, mainly journalists and editors, had been arrested, the newspaper had been forced to close and the company was competing with the big banks for the undesirable role of public enemy number one.

HR magazine has been invited to meet Crowley, as he wants to share how the organisation is rebuilding trust and morale. We meet at News UK’s brand new building next door to the Shard.  After all, nothing says fresh start like a fresh building. “There’s never a greater manifestation of breaking from the past as moving,” says Crowley. And it isn’t the only thing that’s new: in June 2013, the company rebranded as News UK.

The first message Crowley is keen to get across, in regards to the phone hacking scandal, is that a few bad apples don’t rot the whole barrel. “We have to remember that it was a very small proportion of our population,” he says. “The vast majority have got a proud, strong track record of award-winning, campaigning and historic journalism.” Perhaps to drive this point home, we’re conducting the interview in a room named after celebrated Sunday Times war reporter Marie Colvin, who was killed while covering the siege of Homs, Syria in 2012.

When Crowley joined the organisation in 2008 from Deloitte, he recalls being bowled over by what he describes as “such a great culture”. “It’s an organisation where what people do really matters to them. It’s fantastic for HR because it creates an environment where if you can get people aligned their passion, determination and creativity leads them to do quite extraordinary things,” he adds.

Of course, the problem comes when those “extraordinary things” (what Crowley describes as a “relentless” pursuit of the truth and the story) also happen to be at best unethical and at worst illegal. How does he join those dots? “It’s hard, because this challenged people’s sense of identity and purpose,” he says. “If you fundamentally believe in the good that newspapers do in society, when you are challenged with something so blatantly wrong, it cuts to the quick, it cuts to the core. It challenges the organisation’s sense of identity.”

Were the allegations a surprise? “Yes, people were surprised. We’re now 10 or 12 years on from when some of those incidents took place. The truth is only coming out now. That’s what makes it hard. You don’t quite know what your organisation stood for.”

As such, ‘“re-establishing that sense of purpose has been a key priority”. “We’re not constantly referring back to what happened, but we’re saying: ‘Here is what we stand for now, and here’s what we are going to stand for going forward’,” he adds. “We can be sure that the things that happened in the past couldn’t happen now.”

What about HR: should it be the conscience of the organisation? “Yes and no,” he says. “I don’t like the implication that as the conscience HR is slightly removed. What’s more powerful is having a sense of accountability, and reminding the organisation of where we’ve come from, where we are today and where we’re trying to get to.”

He continues: “If you ask, was HR aware of it at the time? No. Could it have been aware of it at the time? No. Was it working with leaders and new managers trying to communicate purpose and direction? Absolutely. What happened was counter to that direction.”

Whether that’s because the right direction wasn’t clear enough, the wrong direction was set in the first place, or the culture of Fleet Street meant it was simply a matter of who got caught first (News International wasn’t the only publisher to be have been implicated in illegal activity) is open to debate. The narrative for News UK now is that this will never be allowed to happen again. And whatever HR’s role in the past, Crowley is certain now is the time for it to take centre stage in making the organisation fit for the future.

There are three aspects to HR’s role at News UK, in Crowley’s mind. The first is dealing with today: “We have a complex situation with a number of court cases going on, and we need to manage those in a fair and transparent way.” The second piece is around compliance and policy: “We’ve acknowledged that bad things have happened. How can we, from a policy and process perspective, make sure we eliminate the possibility of them happening again?” This includes clear processes over the use of private investigators, paying for stories and whistleblowing.

Changes to compliance had to be done quickly; now the challenge is embedding them into the day-to-day. “We want to make this live and breathe, so it’s not just a compliance agenda sat somewhere else, that people look at periodically,” says Crowley. “It’s got to be real and embedded in how people work. Once you’ve got rigorous policy and process, you don’t have anything to worry about.”

Crowley refers to the compliance piece as the “mechanics of change”. It’s the “softer side” of HR he thinks will be “infinitely” more rewarding and impactful, even if it is more challenging.

In the months following the revelation of the phone hacking scandal, morale, engagement and confidence plummeted. “It was the worst time in our commercial history for this to happen,” says Crowley. “We were in the middle of a recession, in a changing market; trading conditions were tough anyway. It felt like the perfect storm.”

Staff confidence was shot. “There were rumours of sales and further closures,” he says. “We needed to try and rebuild confidence, because we can’t get people to respond to the digital opportunity if they’re worried about their future. You can’t get people to innovate and look forward when they’re looking over their shoulders.”

The results of the 2013 employee opinion survey were “bad, there’s no other word for it”. Engagement had dipped 11 points to 56%, only 48% of people were confident in the future of the business and trust in leaders was languishing in the low 40s. Rather than obfuscate, Crowley chose to speak about the results in a video interview with former The Times comment editor Tim Montgomerie. “His opening question was something like: ‘These are awful, explain yourselves’,” he recalls. “You have to have that honesty because people will see through the rest of it.”

In the year after, communication (both internal and external) was a key priority. “When you have that negative external narrative, you need to join the conversation,” says Crowley. “Once people see the organisation’s rhetoric isn’t just being delivered internally but also confidently externally, they start to believe it.” The executive teams committed to as much face-to-face activity as possible, both via agenda-setting strategy presentations and more informal town hall style Q&As. “You cannot do this through presentations or emails; it’s got to be face-to-face,” he adds.

On the more technical HR side of things, the organisation invested in training and development to instil confidence in individuals about their career paths. Crowley also introduced a recognition agenda, focused on peer-to-peer recognition. “That’s important in trying to encourage the right behaviours, but also in saying ‘we can be proud of what we do, and we should celebrate it’,” he says.

He believes the completion scores of the 2014 survey “tell you something in themselves”: 96% of staff completed it, and 1,500 freeform text comments were left. Scores in trust and confidence in leaders had gone up 29 points to 71%; 72% of staff said they understood where the organisation is going; and 68% said they were positive about the future, up 24 points in a year.

It’s undeniably an impressive improvement, but Crowley is clear that “culture change isn’t as simple as that”. How long does he think it takes to change a culture? “I don’t know, but I know it’s years,” he answers. “I’m not a fan of the branded culture change programme as it implies there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. But culture change is not linear; it’s very messy. You’ve got to be in it for the long haul and accept that change is incremental. HR has to work in a guerrilla fashion, embedded in the business. I’m amazed at how resilient the business is and how quickly it rebounded, but we’ve still got loads to do.”

Heading forward, one of the ongoing challenges HR has is around perception. Crowley says the business faced recruitment challenges at the height of the scandal, and that it hasn’t helped it to find digital skills in a competitive market. “It’s about ensuring the external perception of what it’s like to work here matches the reality,” says Crowley. “Due to the reputational damage we’ve suffered, there’s a perception out there about what it must be like to work in this organisation. Those of us who work here and love it for the passionate, creative, fun place it is have a responsibility to tell that story.”

And he is positive the “external narrative is changing”. “Some of the external commentators are now talking about the change that’s happening at News UK,” he adds. “We’ve been willing to debate our strategy and discuss what’s happened in public. People see that as a sign this is real.”

In the wake of the hacking scandal, the 2012 Edelman Trust Barometer found ‘informed public’ trust in media was 49%, with only 14% of the public trusting tabloids and 47% trusting broadsheets. In 2014, trust remains low, at 54%, and only time will tell whether the efforts of all publishers, not just News UK, will succeed in improving it.

While acknowledging the past (although ongoing trials mean it still feels rather present, and limit what can be said), News UK is now firmly focused on the future. “We’ve talked a lot about honesty,” Crowley says. “We’re making very real commitments towards governance and ensuring our journalism is world class and produced in ethical ways. [The scandal] is part of our narrative and we have to make sure we don’t hide away from it. We have to recognise it, learn from it, make sure it never happens again, and hopefully come out of it stronger.”

The future of journalism

With the increasing onslaught of digital, does traditional print journalism have a future? All mainstream newspapers are struggling, although October’s ABC figures show News UK’s The Times is obviously doing something right, bucking the trend as the only paper to increase its circulation over the past year.

“There has never been more information available in the world and helping people to make sense of that information is a critically important job,” believes Crowley. Does he think there’s a future for journalism? “Absolutely.”

News UK is one of the only mainstream media companies to have implemented a paid-for online model, with most of The Times’ content behind a paywall. “We’ve seen people will pay for niche, high-value products, or those with a distinctive viewpoint or tone of voice,” he says. “So the challenge is to produce something people can’t get everywhere, and that has intrinsic value.”

To encourage digital innovation, journalists classed as “emerging leaders” are put through a digital development programme, working with people “doing interesting things in terms of how words and pictures are put together digitally”. HR’s role is to “foster” rather than “structure” innovation, says Crowley. “The best way is to learn on the job,” he adds. “We can’t stop producing the day-to-day stuff; we’ve got to sell newspapers tomorrow.”

And to find and nurture young talent, News UK’s News Academy works with schools and young people around the country. Crowley believes such initiatives can “change the narrative around journalism”. “Journalism is not a dirty word,” he says. “It’s a fantastic career and one of the most important jobs in society. We need to make sure we’ve got journalists.”