Ashley Madison and other crisis management

A couple of months ago I was media training someone who thought their company may at some stage face a crisis. They were a respectable business and since my sessions are confidential I’m not going to use them as an example.

It certainly wasn’t Ashley Madison – the dating site for people who are already married – whose database has been hacked and its members’ data compromised. There will be a lot of people sniggering at the thought of unfaithful people getting caught out, having their details published or their credit cards compromised.

Rationally it’s not funny. If their partners found out and gave them marching orders, fair enough – but whatever your moral standpoint, the company was doing nothing illegal and the members had their right to privacy. Oh, and their partners are going to be just as badly hit by any misappropriation of their funds.

So, if I were advising Ashley Madison – or if your company were to face a crisis – what would I advise?

Have a plan

The first step is: don’t wait for something to go wrong. Assume it will and have a plan, and have a couple of dry runs. Then if nothing ever goes wrong there’s no harm done and if it does you’re not taken by surprise.

Some second steps would be as follows:

  • Prepare a statement. Put it on the website for everyone to see. Direct people to the statement, particularly journalists – we won’t like it but it’s stronger than “no comment”.
  • Make sure the statement says something that sounds humble. Ashley Madison now and others who’ve been hacked in the past might feel like saying “it’s because hackers are scumbags” but it won’t help. “We take our clients’ security seriously and are doing all we can to safeguard their details” is better.
  • Ensure that your colleagues know who’s authorised to talk to the press and who isn’t. Make sure they are aware that there are consequences for unauthorised people talking to journalists.
  • No matter how unjust you think the crisis is, or how much you feel the journalist is needling you and holding you responsible (because you happen to be the person in front of them), don’t get angry. Stay calm.
  • Confirm facts where you can. Don’t confirm or fuel speculation. As a journalist I might say to Ashley Madison “Surely people might find someone has maxed out their credit card and their partner doesn’t know – this could end a relationship”. We both know that’s technically correct but don’t agree – say “At this stage all we know is that X amount of personal data has been compromised. We are watching the situation carefully and doing everything we can to help.” And something about how your main concern is for your clients’ confidentiality.
  • Watch social media. Respond where appropriate in a measured way – and accept that in this case you’re going to be the butt of a few jokes and a fair bit of sangfroid from people who think you’ve got a dose of what you deserved.
  • Have a crisis management team in place if at all possible.

…and of course hire a journalist in advance to put you through your paces, practice your responses, in your office or in a TV or radio studio if possible. I can provide all of that – email me for details or fill in the contact form below.

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