Criminal Hackers Hand PR Services a Cyber Security Crisis

The latest cyber security breach is multi-million-dollar reputation killer for some big names in PR.

We’ve written before about criminal hacking and the creative ways in which stolen information can be both accessed and exploited.

Well, here’s a new one, and it’s a doozey: criminals have hacked into PR wire services and snatched news releases prior to their dissemination.

The releases contained information about mergers, acquisitions, product launches, and other news that proved highly lucrative before it was actual news. The criminals made more than $100 million in profits from illegal trades and sales of the inside information.

This international web of hackers have not only illustrated (yet again) how vulnerable our markets are to cyber threats, but they’ve also handed these wire services (yet another) example of how inadequate their security features are. This is has been going on since 2010.

The hacked wire services, are Marketwired, PR Newswire, and Business Wire. Their clients, whose news releases were scooped include some of America’s largest corporations: Boeing, Hewlett Packard, Ford Motor Company, Bank of America, and Home Depot.

All the services are cooperating with the investigation, but what are they doing to reassure their clients? There’s no way to downplay the magnitude of this crisis, but there are ways to restore client confidence, beginning with communication.

As a subscriber to PR Newswire, I received a personal notification regarding the breach—but not until 10 hours after the story broke in the media. Still, the company, so far, has done what it should:

  • Notify clients directly
  • Explain what happened
  • List steps taken to fix it
  • Give clients a way to register concerns
  • Follow through

As with just about any crisis, straightforward communication is key to building and maintaining trust.

Four New PR Disasters

Who’s having a stretch of bad #PR? #SonyPictures, #RollingStone, #Uber & #CBS, that’s who.

Remember when Bill Cosby serial rape allegations, the NFL’s tepid response to domestic violence, and whatever Justin Bieber is up to were the lead stories? In the era of the moment-to-moment news cycle, those Dickensian tales populated with sordid characters and depressing storylines are now fading and we’re already on to the newest shiny objects.

Here are four new PR disasters for which Bill Cosby’s PR team is probably grateful.

1. Cyber Attacks on Sony Pictures

North Korea is the prime suspect for allegedly orchestrating a cyber attack on Sony Pictures-the most destructive such attack ever waged against a company in the U.S.-because Sony is about to release The Interview. The FBI says, however, there is “no attribution” to the Hermit Kingdom at this point.

This Seth Rogan-James Franco-Lizzy Caplan fictional comedy revolves around two journalists who’ve scored an exclusive interview with Kim Jong Un and subsequently have been ordered by the CIA to assassinate the Dear Leader.

North Korea—or someone—embarrassed and inconvenienced Sony by releasing salary figures and other financial data, by wiping data from hard drives, and by sending employees threatening emails in broken English (which would sound hilarious if read out loud by Sofia Vergara).

But now, interest in a movie that – in less fraught circumstances – might have come and gone with little notice has soared. Still, Sony has some ’splainin’ to do regarding why Rogen was paid $8.4 million while Franco earned “only” $6.5 million.

For a good laundry list of public and private relations that Sony will need to repair in the wake of this criminal hack, see this entertaining roundup on New York Magazine’s Vulture page.

2. Rolling Stone’s Mea Culpa

Known for its hard-hitting investigative reporting, Rolling Stone failed its readers, possibly the central figure in the story, most definitely the cause of campus sexual assault—with a poorly sourced story about the alleged gang rape of a female student at the University of Virginia. The story was the foundation for further reporting about an alleged culture of misogyny, abuse, and cover-ups at U-Va. The most glaring mistake seems to be that the reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, agreed not to interview the alleged rapists in order to spare the victim more emotional trauma.

Now, details of the student’s account are crumbling under scrutiny, and Rolling Stone and U-Va are embroiled in individual and collective controversies. Because basic fact checking wasn’t done, the damage to just about everyone involved is immense.

3. Not So Uber

First, one of the mobile car-booking company’s vice presidents floated the idea of hiring researchers to dig up dirt on reporters who’ve criticized the company. This week, the Delhi region of India banned Uber after one of its drivers allegedly raped a passenger.

Uber has its proponents, including me (it’s more convenient than city taxis), and its detractors (it’s overpriced and the drivers can be sketchy), but it seems to have fallen into that start-up frame of mind wherein founders think they should be immune from censure because their company’s contribution to society is beyond reproach. Unfortunately, quality control and customer service are often the first casualties of rapid growth. Careful screening of Uber drivers is the least customers should expect.

4. CBS Ends 12-Hour Feud With Dish

More a PR cliché than a disaster, this all-too-frequent brinksmanship between networks or network affiliates and cable or satellite providers occurs whenever the parties can’t agree on retransmission fees. The latest dustup saw CBS pull its programming from Dish in 14 markets for 12 hours.

It was barely enough time for CBS and Dish to run those annoying lower-third crawls that warn viewers they’re about to lose the ability to watch Hawaii 5-0 because “[Fill in the Blank] is being unreasonable in its retransmission demands.” The disagreements always get resolved, so spare us your righteous outrage and save the crawls for more worthwhile information – like which day YouTube will post Sofia Vergara reading broken-English threats to Sony employees.

Lose the Snark (Would it kill you to be nice?)

alt="SnarkFreeDay is here! Embrace it. #losethesnark"

A co-worker walks by your cubicle with a morning cup of coffee, stumbles, and sloshes that venti double vanilla macchiato all over her crisp white blouse. Your response? “Hey, Grace, walk much?” Everyone giggles.

A mother who’s juggling her roll-aboard, diaper bag, and writhing bundle of screaming two-year old is holding up the boarding process for your flight. You find you’re seated next to them. Your response? Jump on your cell phone and tell your bestie, so everyone can hear, “Yeah, I’m seated in the middle of Romper Room with a walking advertisement for birth control.” You and your friend laugh.

A newspaper columnist writes something you don’t like. In the comments section, you write – anonymously—“What a self-centered, bubble-headed no-talent. How do you even keep a job? LOL!”

But hey! It’s fun to be snarky. We laugh, our friends laugh, and if people want to be good sports, the objects of our snark will laugh, too, right? I mean it’s just a joke.

Oxford Dictionaries defines snarky as “of a person, words, or a mood sharply critical; cutting; snide; finding fault.”

What if we’re not being funny? What if we’re just being mean?

For a moment, let’s agree with Shakespeare that the fault, Dear Snarky Ones, lies not in our jokes, but in our selves.

Today, October 21, 2014 is the second annual “Snark Free Day,” a campaign begun by PR Consultants Group, a national consortium of public relations and communications professionals, of which, The Knight Canney Group is a member. And truth be told, none of us is snark free on any given day.

But what if for one day, instead of delivering the witty jibe, we offered a word of encouragement?  Instead of making the snide comment at someone else’s expense, we said something kind to make someone smile?

We’re not out to kill humor! Heaven knows we actually need more of that in the world. No, we launched “Snark Free Day” last year as a way to get people to pay attention to the effect their words and deeds have on others, to communicate better, and to ratchet back the vitriol that’s overtaking our human interactions.

So, give it a try for today. Lose the snark. It won’t kill you to be nice.

Help a Reporter Out Helps Out – From PR blunder to PR success

Haro Vocus

After committing what I declared here last week to be a public relations sin, HARO, a communications/public relations service owned by VOCUS, has gone and turned my complaint into a compliment.

As reported in that blog post, my initial inquiry to HARO regarding why it would allow an advertiser to insult at least one half of its customers, went unanswered.

Over the weekend, however, I received an email from the Director of Corporate Communications at VOCUS, Breeanna Straessle. To her credit—and my delight—she concurred that the ad should not have been sent to HARO’s myriad subscribers.

After reading The Knight Canney Group blog, Straessle says she “learned that HARO ads don’t have editorial guidelines, so even though the team saw a red flag with this one, they weren’t able to push back.” Straessle also reports that she is “already collaborating with our product management and legal teams to write guidelines. This will allow us to not be insensitive to our loyal HARO community ever again.”

In her personal and personable response, Ms. Straessle acknowledged a company error, apologized for it, explained how the company will correct it, and invited the complainer (me) to move forward with the company in a positive manner.  For all this she gets an “A” and she retains a customer. (An “A+” will be awarded when the new guidelines are written and implemented.)

From PR blunder to PR success all with one email. It’s not rocket science. And yet, so many companies get it wrong.

Help A Reporter Out (But first, let us insult you!)

@KnightCanney says #HARO & #VOCUS are built on #PR. So why insult it?

There I was minding my clients’ various businesses when my twice-daily email from HARO dropped into my inbox. HARO is “Help a Reporter Out,” a service founded in 2008 (owned by VOCUS since 2010), which can efficiently match reporters with sources they need.

For example, here’s a query from October 3, 2014:

I’m writing an article for GEN on how next-generation sequencing 
can help biotech improve expression systems for
 biopharmaceuticals, e.g. CHO cells, e. coli, and yeast. I need to speak with someone no later than Monday, October 6.

And another from September 29, 2014:

Looking for experts to provide info on the pros and cons of
 taking an online college course. This piece is specifically for
 Community College students.

The subscriber base for HARO comprises, as you’d assume, reporters—but also sources. Most of whom are represented by PR practitioners, either in house, or as paid consultants. You know, the ones who actually “Help a Reporter Out.” As for VOCUS, let’s just say, without PR practitioners, there is no VOCUS. Per it’s own copy, VOCUS is Public Relations Software and Tools.

Speaking of tools, imagine my dismay when I opened the recent HARO email and the first thing I read is:

 Are you sick of paying publicists and PR firms huge fees with no guarantees and little “if any” tangible results? Tired of pitching to TV producers without getting any results? Learn how to work your way up to big time TV shows with three free training videos that teach you how to become a local TV celebrity.  

Because HARO offers a base level of free service—and free is nearly always good—it needs advertisers. This query was part of an advertisement from someone who promises to make his clients instant celebrities—apparently without even making a sex tape, a route that may be cheaper in the long run.

His program (no I won’t link to it) costs $10,000, a figure that’s buried in the “terms of service.” Those who are “tired of paying publicists and PR firms huge fees” can fly to Los Angeles at their own expense, pay him $10k, and take his instant celebrity class all for a guaranteed “one” placement on a local network affiliate. From there, it’s supposedly just a few easy steps to national fame. Next stop on Gullible’s Travels, the Today Show!

But enough about one guy trying to make a buck. Let’s get back to HARO and VOCUS. I asked the diligent HARO sales executive who regularly reaches out to me, for a comment about why HARO would run an ad that deliberately insults its consumer base. No response.

I appreciate the need for paying customers. I appreciate that some people pay so that others don’t have to. I even appreciate this guy’s ingenuity in being able to collect $10,000 each from people who believe he can turn them into the next Doris Kearns Goodwin. It’s a free and capitalist country, right? What I don’t appreciate is having this drivel land in my inbox every day for a week courtesy of a company that ostensibly caters to the profession I practice.

HARO and VOCUS, here’s a PR tip—I won’t even charge you a huge fee: Know Your Audience. And a bonus tip: Don’t Insult Your Customers.