By Scott Sobel, MA, Media Psychology; President, Media & Communications Strategies. This post originally appeared here on Bulldog Reporter.
The day that Booz Allen Hamilton confirmed it employed Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old Maryland man claiming responsibility for leaking classified U.S. surveillance programs, a legal reporter with a national paper of record asked me if the revelation would hurt the defense contractor’s bottom line and reputation—if so, for how long? Keep in mind, the corporation’s stock had already tumbled that Monday by as much as 5 percent, putting a damper on the contractor’s impressive gains over the last six years when it had more than doubled its sales to the federal government—the latest sales figures showing $4 billion in 2012.
I swallowed hard before I answered the reporter’s question about the prognosis for the damage the contractor would suffer and resisted the temptation to say, “what do you think, arguably Booz Allen employed the analyst responsible for the biggest security breach of its kind since the Pentagon Papers leak … those are really stupid questions!”
I did indeed answer that obvious question and several others from different top print and broadcast news outlets and tried to put my answers in the context of the not-so-obvious and frame my answers in ways that would keep the reporter friendly and help the journalist to do their job better. I remembered when I was a reporter in their position and I also sources to craft quotes or sound bites to move the story along because a journalist, in a perfect world, should be an objective conduit of information and not a subjective source themselves.
The reporters calling shortly after the metadata leaker came forward asked their questions in a predictable order worth mentioning here. In a crisis circumstance, PR practitioners should be prepared to field questions like: 1) What happened? 2) Why did it happen? 3) What is the impact? 4) Who or what was responsible for the crisis and how can the impact be mitigated? 5) What is being done to prevent another crisis? 6) What will happen for the long-term?
I’ve associated my actual published quotes and responses to the various reporter questions in the following text below.
1) What happened? I pointed reporters to the initial Booz Allen holding statement on its website … “News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm.”
2) Why did it happen? I told reporters I wouldn’t speculate on why or how the leak happened.
3) What is the impact? I explained to all reporters that a major PR challenge for Booz Allen, like any entity caught in the maelstrom of crisis, is the capability to quickly get past the immediate shock and then thoughtfully manage the outcome because their clients and prospects will likely judge them less about the initial culpability than how the contractor handled the ongoing outcome. I said in light of the leak, “Money and man-hours are going to be flying out the windows,” said Scott Sobel, president of Media & Communications Strategies, a Washington crisis-management company. Booz Allen has not been a client.
The company’s existing contracts may not be damaged, but Sobel said that Booz Allen is certain to shoulder extensive legal fees, federal investigations and news media scrutiny in the months to come.
… those next big next steps after Booz Allen, for example, released their good holding statement:
4) Who or what was responsible for the crisis and how can the impact be mitigated? I mentioned to reporters that Booz Allen’s base for repairing its reputation depended on problems it may have had in the past and any steps they took to inoculate themselves against security liabilities. One media outlet did check that angle and reported a Booz Allen’s recent and routine disclosure to the Securities and Exchange Commission about the possibility of:
“… employee misconduct involving the “improper use of our clients’ sensitive or classified information.”
“It is not always possible to deter employee or subcontractor misconduct, and the precautions we take to prevent and detect this activity may not be effective in controlling unknown or unmanaged risks or losses, which could materially harm our business.”
My related quote: “I’m sure there’s a certain amount of risk that’s unavoidable,” he said. “But at the end of the day Booz Allen was the company that was on watch when this happened.”
5) What is being done to prevent another crisis? I was quoted correctly in Bloomberg, for instance, on this suggestion based on my experience of how government-related businesses can prove their good intentions and enhance their image of transparency. “Scott Sobel, president of Media & Communications Strategies, a Washington-based crisis communications firm, said the company may be discussing other options as it seeks to contain the fallout over the disclosures, such as ordering an independent outside review headed by experts formerly of the National Security Agency, CIA or FBI.”
6) What will happen for the long-term? “It strikes right at the heart of credibility and security for a company like Booz Allen,” said Sobel, president of Media & Communications Strategies Inc., a public relations firm in Washington.
The contractor has to put systems in place that strengthen their relationships with government and other clients and should have constant contact working together with clients to make sure both internal and external security vetting of potential employees and certainly checking current employees take place … the contractor needs to be very public about all the actions they take to prevent a repeat of the security breach, even if their vulnerability isn’t any worse than their competitors. After all, Booz Allen is perceived as the captain on watch when the ship went down.
And this particular story joining the NSA and Booz Allen at the hip will certainly not evaporate quickly. There are congressional investigations percolating, legal civil and criminal cases brewing and ethical stews boiling as our nation decides the balance between privacy, protection and the obligation of citizens to potentially break oaths and the law for the greater good. A PR cottage industry built on this event should anticipate the fall-out and prepare to provide the best counsel for all stakeholders.
Scott Sobel is president of Media & Communications Strategies, Inc., a Washington, DC-based public relations firm that manages reputation and communications challenges of all kinds worldwide. www.macstrategies.com. He is also a former corporate public relations practitioner and major market and TV network investigative journalist with a Media Psychology MA from Touro University Worldwide www.TUW.edu and a founding member of Public Relations Boutiques International http://www.prboutiques.com.