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PR verdict on Rupert Murdoch: Small, unfrightening, unimpressive

By Mark Borkowski, Special to CNN
  • PR expert Mark Borkowski says Murdoch's performance resembled "upmarket Jerry Springer Show"
  • Both Murdoch's unwillingness to answer questions was unexpected, he says
  • PR process helped Murdochs manage the situation, but did not deal with internal News Corp family crisis, he adds

Editor's note: Mark Borkowski is a British public relations advisor, impresario and commentator. He has produced two books, "Improperganda: The Art of the Publicity Stunt," a history of public relations, and "The Fame Formula," on the history of Hollywood's great publicists. He can be found on Twitter at @markborkowski

(CNN) -- This week's performance by Rupert and James Murdoch at a British parliamentary hearing raises some questions that News Corp. will struggle to answer, regardless of the outcome of the phone-hacking scandal.

I find it difficult not to believe that in the days leading up to the inquiry that Murdoch senior and junior will have been briefed by some smart PR muscle, looking to convey the best appearance, while managing the rhetoric to create the best possible image for crisis management, watered down into a fairly obvious mix of sincerity and contrition.

The dress code of white shirts and dark suits summed up the image: sober determination. The idea was for the Murdochs to look as if they are on the side of the politicians, rather than against them. But with this preparation in mind, what actually transpired left audiences rather surprised and confused.

From the start, Rupert Murdoch was shaky and hesitant, a stark contrast to the rather unexciting Ivy-League performance of James. Interrupting his articulate son in the opening minutes to say: "this is the most humble day of my life," Rupert instantly deflated any hopes that we would see some sort of omnipotent media tyrant, too powerful to be contained by the parliamentary committee.

Instead, he looked like what he is; an old and rather frail man. It was a sound bite delivered at the perfect moment -- sincerity shining through in the formal surroundings of the inquiry. As so many on Twitter commented, we almost felt sorry for an old man. It was a bit like seeing the object that has been casting great shadows on the wall; small, unfrightening, and unimpressive.

Having been denied the Rupert we wanted and expected, we were instead given a senile dementia infomercial for a big pharma. The malevolent spell Rupert Murdoch had woven in the popular imagination was shattered.

The audience got both sentimentality and drama; throaty apologies and a crowd that was "foaming" with anger made it feel strangely like an upmarket episode of the Jerry Springer Show.

But in terms of what actually happened, this event was a no-score draw: no winners or losers.

Perhaps it was not a classic case of damage control, more a tactical attempt to manage a situation. Both Murdochs were derailed by the committee refusing to allow them to read a prepared statement.

Some might argue the PR process helped them manage the situation, however they have opened up an internal crisis about the family control of News Corp.

Media watchers might speculate that Rupert Murdoch did not look like a chairman of a corporate behemoth, and the lasting impression is clear -- Rupert is now too old and James is perhaps a little too young to take on the mantle.

The unwillingness of both men to say that they didn't know details was slightly unexpected. They had plenty of time to be briefed on details before the meeting.

I thought it was clever, but worked better for James than it did for Rupert. Both have the defense of being several degrees of separation from any wrongdoing. There have clearly been internal failures regarding the protection of the most senior figures from damage in low level areas of the business.

In light of their defence, it was actually an advantage that they did not learn the details, for that would have opened questions on why they did not act on their apparent knowledge at the time. For James, his best defence simultaneously made him look like a chief executive, running a vast business.

Rupert -- whom we expected to know these details (perhaps because we think of News Corp. in such personalised terms: his empire) -- looked out of touch and ignorant of his own corporation.

Rupert clearly does not understand how personally bound up he is with his company in the popular perception. His own understandable (and now perhaps deliberate) ignorance of the details of one of his former titles, and is evident signs of age, can -- and will -- be read as signs of a company out of touch and out of control.

Regardless of whether Rupert stays or goes, for News Corp to truly recover from the hacking scandal, they need to set to work on divorcing his image from the image of the business.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mark Borkowski.

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