Sony, Facebook, and the sad state of PR

Why do companies react so badly when disaster strikes? Because they don't respect their customers

Lately I've been scratching my head and wondering what the heck has happened to the public relations industry.

As a journo/columna/bloggerista, I deal a fair amount with PR people. The vast majority of them are highly competent, pleasant individuals who are necessary to what I and my fellow j/c/b types do every day. If you want to reach someone inside a company whose employee roster can no longer fit comfortably inside a broom closet, you generally have to go through PR.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Enough about PR -- how about the state of Web journalism? Cringely takes a look and doesn't like what he sees. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

(Yes, it is absolutely possible to operate outside of PR and find your own sources. It's what many blogs try to do, with varying success. What happens, though, is you end up publishing completely bogus stories saying that Google's about to buy Digg or Apple's buying Twitter. But I digress.)

Unfortunately it seems none of these competent PR people work for Sony or Facebook. Or if they do, they've been overthrown by the forces of incompetence.

Take the Sony PlayStation Network fiasco. It started with a mysterious outage that went unexplained for almost a week, followed by a few dribs and drabs of information leaked via blog post, a letter to Congress trying to pin the blame on someone else, an apology and a few weak attempts to mollify angry customers, and now more hacks and security problems.

Yet Sony CEO Howard Stringer is apparently livid because his company has been getting raked over the coals for playing "see no evil, speak no evil" for a week while everyone wondered what the frak happened. From Sir Howard's point of view, Sony was Johnny on the spot. Per Reuters:

This was an unprecedented situation. Most of these breaches go unreported by companies. Forty-three percent (of companies) notify victims within a month. We reported in a week. You're telling me my week wasn't fast enough?

Yes, Howard, that's exactly what we're telling you. It was an unprecedented situation -- probably the worst Internet hack ever. It involved the theft of personal information, including credit card data, for more than 100 million people, many of them minors. And it was in the hands of hackers for at least a week before anyone outside of Sony knew about it.

Now you know why Sony screwed the pooch so badly: because Howard Stringer thinks it wasn't that big a deal. It's arrogance, pure and simple.

Facebook's story is even more amazing. The fact it thought it could generate a smear campaign against a major rival and fly under the radar undetected was just appallingly stupid. That a major firm like Burson-Marsteller agreed to take this on (and -- who knows -- might have even suggested it) tells you all you need to know about the sorry state of PR. Facebook still has not explained its motivations here and likely never will. As a result, its reputation will always be stained.

When disaster strikes, many companies operate on a need-to-know basis. (I'm especially talking to you, Apple and Amazon.) Often they decide the public -- that is, customers and potential customers -- don't really need to know. That's mind-boggling to me. It just makes things worse.

So here's some free advice to the billionaires who run these companies: When something bad happens, don't pretend it didn't. Tell the world, "Hey, somebody bad happened, we're not sure what but we're working on it; stay tuned for further developments." Then provide further developments.

If you have nothing new to report, tell the world you have nothing new to report, but you'll let them know as soon as you do. If nothing else, it makes it look as though you care about what's happening to the people who are keeping you in business, even if you really don't.

Why is that so hard to understand?

What companies do you think have done a good job informing the public after the manure has hit the fan? Nominate your candidates below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Sony, Facebook, and the sad state of PR," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringeley's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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