How to Handle a Sony Hack

The Sony Hack was distressing for many reasons, but it brought to the fore one valuable lesson for all business owners, even those whose work would not normally be of interest to dictators or news reporters.

The lesson is this: Some things should never be committed to writing.

Although many of us might not attract the attention of a malevolent foreign country, we all own information that we don’t want to see splashed on the web.

Among other things, the Sony Hack resulted in many news stories about the content of C-suite emails. Executives eventually demanded that news outlets refrain from publishing the information — which Sony rightfully pointed out was stolen — and take down and destroy all disputed files.

One editor of an entertainment newspaper wrote a column weighing the pros and cons. In it, he admitted he felt some remorse about publishing Sony’s purloined emails, which contained salary figures and off-color observations. But he decided that publications such as his had a duty to report about the hack and its aftermath. The First Amendment leaves decisions like this to editors like him, for better or worse.

The same situation could happen to your business. If something embarrassing or destructive about your firm becomes part of the public discussion because of a computer breach, don’t expect the press to be polite and ignore it. Threats won’t work, nor will begging for mercy. The problem won’t go away if you hide, either. Every situation is slightly different, but the solution is always the same: Address the public relations situation in a straightforward way.

A good standard is to remember that you shouldn’t say things in email correspondence that you might get away with in a private, face-to-face conversation. When you converse via email as you assist a client in putting together a deal to buy or sell a piece of property, for instance, don’t joke around, say something indiscreet about the other party, or otherwise write things that you wouldn’t want read in a courtroom or see published in a news blog.

If the worst happens and embarrassing company information is released, accidentally or purposefully, apologize sincerely to everyone who was hurt, and explain what you will do to make sure it doesn’t happen again. Spread the word on your website and via social media, press releases and other marketing collateral. Explain yourself to your staff and clients, and make yourself available for interviews with reporters, including the ones who took the most joy in writing about your organization’s secrets. There is no room for ego when you are working to save your brand.

None of this is easy, but the faster you deal with the embarrassment, the faster you will be allowed to get back to the regular business challenges that normally account for your day-to-day operations.

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