the psn hack: why sony needed to do crisis comms better

Christmas and New Year 2014 will be remembered for many things. Presents. Mince pies. And in many households a battle with a non-loading hacked Playstation Network with minimal information. Here's what one comms person had to say.

by Julie Waddicor 

“Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, the men-folk were moaning, starting to complain and grouse.”

Late on Christmas Eve and into Christmas Day Sony’s Playstation Network (PSN) suffered a catastrophic failure. The online service which enables people from all corners of the globe to play against each other on a variety of games was suddenly unavailable due to an attack by a hackers’ collective known as the Lizard Squad.

I became aware of it when my partner, one of Sony’s 110 million PSN users, began to complain that it wasn’t working and continued to get increasingly annoyed, culminating in a threat on the 27th December to throw the whole thing in the bin and buy an X-Box. Normal service (by both Sony and partner) was eventually resumed on the 28th.

Throughout the incident – which admittedly wasn’t the world’s biggest crisis, but spare a thought for the families of teenagers (and grown men) unable to use their new Christmas present – Sony was virtually silent. There was nothing on their website. Their Twitter feed only gave very sporadic updates saying that Sony were working on the problem and occasionally thanking people for their patience, despite massive levels of tweeting from paying customers and extensive media coverage.

This was the second attack on Sony in a month, and the latest of several in 2014. Playstation’s closest rival, Microsoft’s X-Box, was hacked at the same time but recovered substantially quicker. The reputation damage caused to Sony by their apparent lack of adequate security and the superior performance of their competitors was hugely increased by their abject failure to carry out effective, or indeed any, crisis communications.

It is difficult to think of an analogous local government service. Let’s be honest, nobody comes to us for fun do they? The closest would probably be the failure of an area’s traffic lights over the Christmas period, or the total absence of gritting in an area where there is snow and ice. What I do know is that, in those situations, the relevant Comms teams would have been online and on the phone doing their job 24/7. Yes, it is Christmas and yes, everyone absolutely needs a break. But we’ve been on call and available if needed: why hasn’t Sony’s PR team done the same?

So what should Sony’s communications professionals have done? In my opinion it is basic crisis management:

Give out information, and regularly – one tweet every ten hours is no good. Sony should have been tweeting about the areas of the PSN affected, what its engineers were doing, which servers were being repaired (in terms of geographic location), why it was taking so long and anticipated times of progress (or at least the time of the next update).

Get some information on your website – there was nothing relevant on Sony’s Playstation website at all, increasing the frustration of less tech-savvy people who thought they were doing something wrong at home.

Get some paid-for information notices in the national newspapers – yes, print is declining, but the media often reports online based on its print content. The papers were awash with comment: some paid-for space might have evened things up, and it’s not like Sony are short of cash.

Get some statements out, pronto – to the mainstream media and to the high profile tech blogs and websites. Give interviews. For the love of God, say something.

Go on the attack – have a spokesman with a face and a name, and bring into question the actions of the hackers. Following a number of fairly pompous statements by Lizard Squad about people spending time with their families on Christmas Day, public sympathy wasn’t entirely in their court. Sony could have increased empathy and understanding by explaining their position more clearly.

Have a plan – Sony has been hacked and had their service compromised repeatedly. They should be old hands at rolling out the crisis PR plan by now. Clearly they are not.

In short, it is staggering that a global corporation like Sony is this bad at communications. Yes, its customers are loyal and have invested time, money and passion in their products. But repeated security problems, massively compounded by a failure to communicate effectively, will chip away at its market share and Microsoft aren’t far behind. If Sony wants to recruit a new PR team it could do far worse than look to the UK public sector who regularly face the challenge of crisis communications effectively, promptly and with commitment.

Okay, sermon over: time to get back watching aliens take over the moon on Playstation’s Destiny game with my usual air of bewilderment.

Julie Waddicor is senior campaigns officer at Staffordshire County Council.

Picture credit.