As we all wallow in the juicy goodness of Sony’s leaked e-mails and contemplate the potential for a Seth Rogen film to spark global nuclear conflict, let’s take a moment to focus on what might be the worst crisis management campaign in history.
Faced with an unprecedented calamity, the executives of one of the world’s most powerful media companies flopped around like speared salmon, making things worse at every step.
From the start, Sony has made almost every wrong move possible. They had no response to how and why the organization was vulnerable to attack, allowing the story to settle into the gleeful schadenfreude of the leaked e-mails, which generally reveal Sony executives as crude and vaguely racist misogynists. Instead of a rapid response move to emphasize that Sony was the victim of a horrendous terrorist attack, the story settled on the relative dickishness of various Sony executives.
With reams of data and e-mails already floating around the Internet, Sony then decided to threaten media organizations and try to get them to stop publishing the information, a laughable exercise. Famed attorney David Boies was sent out to try to corral the oiled pig. More than one observer noted the irony — at the same time Sony was defending its right to release a movie, the studio was trying to suppress news organizations’ free speech. Sony apparently was surprised to discover that media companies have their own attorneys, who were well-versed in these sort of cases.
Responding like a raccoon quivering in a corner, Sony then decided not to release the film, leading to a public shaming by the President of the United States. And that instantly sparked 24-hour coverage portraying Sony execs as wimps and appeasers. The company responded by trying to blame theater operators, their partners, a cheap shot the operators probably won’t soon forget. Perhaps even more worrisome for Sony, the creative community lined up to express their outrage, something no studio can afford.
As they struggled to gain their footing and explain the company’s dilemma, they only dug a deeper hole. CEO Michael Lynton went on Fareed Zakari’s show looking like he just got out of the shower. His responses were defensive and weak, as he tried to explain why Sony had no choice but to capitulate to the North Korean oppressors, or the theater operators, whichever you believe are more horrible.
At this point, Sony was moving into uncharted waters. Very few companies hit this level of self-destructive horror. Perhaps management realized it, so they immediately searched for ways to release the film, to show the world it was, in fact, a company with cojones.
The result was the lukewarm announcement to release this very important film in independent theaters, a choice that was apparently unavailable a few days earlier. And then there was the hurried Christmas Eve announcement that yet another choice had been discovered – a digital release, which comes across as a desperate attempt to make a few bucks off the controversy, while take yet another swipe at their theater operator friends.
It’s too late. Not only will no one forget Sony’s early capitulation, the half-assed release will certainly sap any potential opportunity to make a splash with the film down the road. The digital release ensures that Sony shareholders will see little return from this debacle.
Heads are going to roll, no doubt. Sony management allowed the hacker attack to escalate into an international crisis — all over a silly movie about assassinating the dictator of North Korea, a circumstance that could have been averted by simply calling the country, say, East Kortea, instead.
Everyone would have still gotten the joke. Instead, Sony is the joke.
Kevin Brass writes for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and many others. He is the author of “The Cult of Truland,” a satirical novel set in the world celebrity journalism.