Apr 252011

More to the point, actually, might be the question: What is Sony not doing? One no-brainer answer is “effective crisis management”.

It might seem a little over-entitled for a bunch of relatively affluent gamers to whine about being locked out of one online network for a few days. From Sony’s perspective, tho, this is a massive crisis – one of the biggest hits to their brand in a decade or more. The PS3 has long struggled in the marketplace, especially in the US, and Microsoft seems to have lost little time in capitalizing on Sony’s most recent problem. Destructoid reports that a Microsoft spokesperson commented, “Of course it’s regretful that Sony is encountering issues at such a busy time, and Microsoft takes no joy in the problems gamers are having playing their favourite games online…. That being said, we are expecting Microsoft’s robust online network to see an increase of traffic from those gamers who own both systems.” (To be fair, sourcing on the original article at Electronic Theatre is a little sketchy. Even if the quotation turns out be to a hoax or a mistake, tho, there are at least a few dozen leaders in Microsoft’s XBox division who desperately want to say something like that. And if they haven’t already, they will.)

What have we seen from Sony? Very little communication at all – when they weren’t actually lying to us. (Don’t forget that they originally claimed the outage was due to “maintenance”.)

Dispatches from Sonyland

To appreciate the extent of this crisis for Sony, keep in mind their motto for the PS3: “It Only Does Everything”. Sony wants you to see the PS3 not as a gaming machine, but as a media server and digital entertainment hub. They want the PS3 to be your platform for hard-copy games and Blu-Ray video, but also your platform for digitally-delivered games, music, TV, and movies. They want you to access all of this digital stuff through Sony services like Qriocity, as well as through third-party services like Netflix (which, as Sony was happy to note, offered HD streaming to the PS3 before the XBox 360). Funk did a great job of covering all of that yesterday.

What do these digital services have in common? They’re almost entirely dependent on PSN. (Sure, some people have had success with Netflix after allowing the program’s login screen to repeatedly timeout, but this isn’t a universal fix. It’s also not a reasonable fix for any mass-market rollout.) The potential damage to Sony’s brand is nicely summed up in today’s Penny Arcade strip.

On top of all that, it’s important to recognize other impacts this might have – on customer data and security, not just on entertainment. Sony has now admitted that PSN was brought down by an “intrusion”, but they still won’t confirm whether PSN customers’ private data is secure. I’m one of millions of people who have given Sony my credit card information in order to purchase content over PSN, and Sony’s current word is basically “Your data may or may not be secure – we really don’t know. But hey, we’ll tell you as soon as we find anything out.”

Crisis management and Sony

Instead of rehearsing the crazy things that have come out of Sony’s various, not-always-identifiably-human PR mouthpieces, I want to focus on what they might have done instead. Let’s take a quick look at effective crisis communications, based on the work of Timothy Coombs, one of the current leaders in academic research into this area.

According to the work of Coombs and others in the field of crisis communication, there are some clear commonalities in effective crisis management. The Institute for Public Relations publishes a freely-available whitepaper/summary by Coombs, focusing on the current (ca. 2007) research in the field. Based on his own research and that of others, Coombs identifies the following traits of effective crisis communication:

Be quick and try to have initial response within the first hour.
Be accurate by carefully checking all facts.
Be consistent by keeping spokespeople informed of crisis events and key message points.
Make public safety the number one priority.
Use all of the available communication channels including the Internet, Intranet, and mass notification systems.
Provide some expression of concern/sympathy for victims.
Remember to include employees in the initial response.
Be ready to provide stress and trauma counseling to victims….

The field of crisis communication/management looks at a broad range of challenges – from issues like the PSN outage, to last year’s Deepwater Horizon blowout in the Gulf of Mexico. Some of Coombs’ points don’t apply directly to the current situation with Sony, obviously. For example, my girlfriend and I probably won’t need trauma counseling because we haven’t been able to watch Buffy: The Vampire Slayer via Netflix. But keep in mind what that list represents. It’s not a prescriptive list of tactics that egghead professors think companies should use. Instead, it’s a set of approaches that have shown real-world effectiveness. That list is based on research into hundreds of real-world crisis situations, looking at what worked and what didn’t.

Where does Sony fit into this? Well, you tell me. As far as I can see, they’ve failed on every single applicable category. Maybe they’ve come closest to expressing sympathy (“Provide some expression of concern/sympathy for victims”), but even those statements have sounded pretty insincere to me; Sony spokespeople have only spoken generically about gamers’ “frustration”, rather than acknowledging any specific problems caused by this outage. Overall, Sony’s record over the past six days has been unambiguously dismal. They responded late, they lied early, spokespeople have been inaccurate and inconsistent, the company buried updates in a Twitter feed or a PSN blog, and they just don’t seem to understand the magnitude of their problem – nor its effect on all of Sony’s customers.

Or, as Tycho over at PA wrote,

[Sony] have a serious problem here, and as serious as their technology problem might be, it’s not the biggest one they have. Their problem is that they don’t know how to communicate about anything but their legendary prowess. …  They need to find a human being, or hire one, and start an actual dialogue with users.

They need to do this last Friday.


  4 Responses to “What is Sony doing?”

Comments (4)
  1. I think that’s the most frustrating part about this whole thing. Sony’s lack of communication is stunning, especially in regards to what, if any, personal data was compromised. I can see this being a case study as how not to handle a crisis. Now a week into it and all they say is that they are working on it and have no idea if sensitive info has been exposed.

    I’ll think long and hard before I buy another Sony product again, because if you go by their PR on this issue, it surely seems like the don’t really care about their customers.

  2. With regard to crisis management strategies, Sony’s first priority to address should have been customer data. Even if some of their customers seem to care more about games than privacy, this would have demonstrated that Sony cared about customers.

    The customer data angle is dicey, tho, because there are a lot of states and some countries that have laws requiring disclosure whenever customer privacy is breached. I have no idea which of those laws Sony is even subject to, but they might be hunkered down with their lawyers telling them to say nothing and do nothing. That still means it’s Sony’s fault, but who knows – there are probably people there who want to do the right thing, and they’re not being allowed to.

  3. “The key thing we learnt from Stuxnet was the need for rapid response across the private sector,” DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano told engineering students at the University of California, Berkeley. “There, we need to increase the rapidity of response, because in that area — as in several other recent attacks — we’ve seen very, very sophisticated, very, very novel ways of attacking. When you’re getting at control systems, now you’re really talking [about] taking things over, so this is an area of deep concern for us.”

  4. Destructoid is talking about a theory that “rampant piracy” is at least partly to blame for the full PSN rebuild Sony seems to be doing. Basically, they claim that it’s possible with modded firmware to have full access to everything in Playstation Store for no charge at all. Totally unconfirmed, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it is at least partly true.


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