Sony Struggles to Respond to a Fast-Changing PR Nightmare


The Sony Pictures hacking scandal has gotten seriously ugly. The initial computer breach has turned into a PR nightmare for the movie studio and a potential physical threat to moviegoers, with the company’s reputation now hanging in the balance.

It's a fast-moving story, and the moves Sony is now taking to stop the bleeding provide some guidance (in the positive or negative sense) for communicators who have to manage a severe crisis.

When you have to deal with multifaceted international crisis that is the Sony predicament, there’s no telling how things will unfold.

Sony’s PR team and Rubenstein Communications—which Sony hired this week to handle things—are no doubt scrambling to come up with an overriding strategy to manage the situation.

Here’s the latest:

> Sony executives will let theater owners decide whether or not to run its forthcoming comedy The Interview—a comedy about an assassination plot targeting North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—following threats of physical attacks, according to The Wall Street Journal. The decision comes after the same people who supposedly carried out the cyberattack on Sony Pictures threatened to physically attack theaters for the planned December 25 opening. (U.S. officials and investigators have linked the cyberattack to North Korea. A spokeswoman for the F.B.I. told The New York Times that it “is aware of the threat and is continuing to investigate the attack on Sony.”) This decision may be passing the buck to individual move theaters rather than Sony making the ultimate decision on whether to cancel the movie’s release.

> In a letter to news organizations, David Boies, a prominent lawyer hired by Sony, characterized the documents that were hacked as “stolen information” and demanded that they be avoided, and destroyed if they had already been downloaded or otherwise acquired. The studio “does not consent to your possession, review, copying, dissemination, publication, uploading, downloading or making any use,” of the information, Boies wrote in the three-page letter, which was distributed Sunday morning, per The New York Times. This tosses another wrench into the story. Despite the unusual circumstances of the story, it’s always a fine line when companies try and tell the media how to behave.

> Seth Rogen, who co-stars in The Interview, has cancelled promotional appearances, which is a wise decision. In light of the threats against movie theaters, it’s better for people associated with the film to lay low and let the investigation play out.

> Sony Pictures still has to mend relations with some of Hollywood’s biggest stars—such as Angelina Jolie and Leonardo DiCaprio—who were pilloried in a batch of emails that were hacked. Amid the seriousness of the physical threats to movie theaters, this may seem a mere trifle. But, in Hollywood, generating solid revenue streams stems from having solid relationships with celebs who drive box office.

 Follow Matthew Schwartz on Twitter: @mpsjourno1