December 23, 2014
While the tumultuous Sony waters continue to swirl, public relations professionals stand on the shore, attempting to discern how a behemoth corporation like Sony could have allowed so many PR flubs to occur – seemingly overnight. The most obvious question is whether or not Sony Pictures is so full of its arrogant Hollywood ego that it believes itself safe from attack and its employees absolutely protected from public scrutiny.
Sony Pictures’ unexpected responses to its PR nightmares have left many scratching their heads. Why didn’t Sony initially take threats more seriously? Why didn’t the company share those threats publicly prior to leaks? Why didn’t it step up its Internet security? Why doesn’t a company that creates, negotiates and distributes highly expensive and trademarked content every single day have stronger digital communications, sharing and storing policies?
Clearly, amid several snowballing crises, Sony’s PR team has done minor (if any) damage control and has instead chosen to hide behind aggressive legal consultants who have sent various threatening letters to major media outlets in an effort to staunch further stories and potential fallout. This move has generated yet another internal complication, as several executives have since filed suit against Sony for failing to protect private information, while other executives are positioned center stage to explain the embarrassing specifics of leaked email content. At the heart of a portion of what Sony is dealing with is the mismanagement of digital communications – specifically, email – and subsequent leaks of those emails which contain obviously damaging content. Who could have imagined that supposedly private, often quickly written and distributed emails could result in a monstrous, festering sore on such an established company’s face?
As communications experts, we know all too well that an email is no different than handing over a piece of paper with often sensitive information on it. So many assume that only an email’s recipient(s) will see its contents, and most view it as a vehicle for casual conversation. The media is not the only profession that exploits email, text messages and social media posts. Lawyers, human resource professionals and others also consider digital content valuable. Yet, in a rapidly advancing technological era, many simply forget etiquette and treat emails like casual backyard BBQ dialogue when it’s actually no different than a formal transfer of informational documents.
We all use these communications platforms regularly – it’s the new norm. But when corporate executives in any business fail to recognize that anyone can levy digital communications against them, the results will be similar to what Sony is now experiencing. Every business should have in place a strong digital media policy covering everything from content to storage. Our firm has one and we always advise our clients to do the same: Do not put into email, text or on social media anything you wouldn’t want seen splashed across a headline or on a CNN news ticker.
Clearly, Sony is taking baby steps to respond to the current barrage of PR challenges, yet it’s doing so in a hugely guarded manner. In our opinion, this is the perfect time for Sony to open up and acknowledge fault in several areas. “We screwed up across the board, and here’s what we’re going to do to fix it.” Instead, the company has instructed its legal team to put fingers in the dam. It’s pulled a movie and had an executive or two quietly apologize to Sony employees – and it’s done most of it behind the gates of its studio lot. It is so unbelievable that what seems an innocuous form of communication – one we use each and every day – has become (for Sony) the linchpin to public relations pandemonium. Had Sony followed our advice, the company likely could have diminished at least part of its now infamous crisis. Think before you send and always practice thoughtful digital dialogue. For more advice on how to handle a PR crisis, download our e-guide, Managing Public Relations in a Crisis.