Not just at Xmas

Black Friday may be a bonanza for retailers in revenue terms but it also represents a key risk day for them and their customers, in the guise of the heightened threat of a cyber-attack, according to the consultancy ThreatMetrix. It has warned that online criminals will be super-active over the festive period, starting from today and is predicting hacks will double this year compared to the data-breach levels it measured last year.

Of course, data-breach causes crisis for a company whatever the time of the year. The IT and reputational challenges are considerable. But now in the wake of Ashley Madison and Talk-Talk, victim companies are likely to be more in the spotlight than ever as the media look for further examples of data-hacking and to assess how the company concerned is handling their crisis.

There are various PR lessons to be learned from recent high-profile cyber-events which we summarise here:

  1. Dont speculate on the perpetrator:  it’s fine to say the police or NCA are investigating so it would be inappropriate to comment.
  2. Don’t overplay the victim card: customers will have little sympathy that IT systems weren’t robust enough to keep hackers out.
  3. Do be clear, honest and transparent on the data accessed and the implications – identity only, bank details, photos or whatever. Trying to hide the true extent will only come back to bite you. However it may be possible to take some heat out of the problem, if you can relativise it or talk of active customers or whatever.
  4. Do give logical advice and assistance about password changes required.
  5. Do try to communicate with customers directly and not just through the media – post FAQs on your website, have extra phonelines manned 24/7, respond rapidly to tweets and social media posts. A customer back-lash on twitter for example can fast become a traditional media story the next day if not swiftly dealt with.
  6. Do judge when the CEO should front-up to media enquiries to show you are taking the issue seriously.
  7. Do apologise to customers: don’t let the lawyers talk you out of that one, regardless of the class action lawsuits in the wings. You can ask for patience and understanding in the eye of the storm as you fix things but sorry is important to say.
  8. Don’t be afraid to be transparent about some of the IT fixes being put in place. It can hopefully be done without opening the company to further risk. However the tech and financial community will judge you wisely if you are investing in the right upgrade.
  9. Do offer customers compensation of some kind after the event: this can go a long way to take any bad taste away for the fact their data has been stolen, even if the threat was notional and not in fact hugely impactful.
  10. Do be prepared to talk about your experience after the event. For customers and stakeholders to know you have learnt from the experience can be hugely reassuring and it helps draw a line in the sand to be able to move on.

Bell Yard has worked on various breach situations both in the background giving objective advice away from the fray, and in the front-line handling media on a client’s behalf. The crisis typically lasts 3-5 days and then the calm comes…until any fine from the ICO resurrects the issue.

26 November 2015

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Just a little bit exploitative?

There’s something truly sad, and rather depressing, about the media appearances by the disconsolate father and stepmother of Becky Watts, the Bristol teenager brutally killed by her step-brother, aided by his girlfriend, in the wake of their convictions.  As consultants to individuals facing the most tumultuous of times, there are moments when compassionate advice is all about saving clients from themselves.    Of course there’s huge media interest in such a despicable tale, and I’m sure they have handled the family with as much sensitivity as individuals, working for large media organisations in a highly competitive environment, ever can.

Does the public really need to watch first-hand a family ripped, but fortunately not (yet) broken, by such tragedy?  Is there not something more powerful about leaving us to only imagine the difficulties they are having to face and overcome, amidst the grief, guilt, anger and betrayal they must feel.   There were words in the family’s statement alluding to the distaste among the extended family at the fact of people making money out of murder, presumably referring to those within the fold being paid to tell their tales.

If there were ever a need to exert greater control over our media, I would venture to suggest it is in times of tragedy.  I hope time away from the exhausting and relentless media spotlight eventually brings this family healing and at least a modicum of peace that anyone in their ghastly situation truly deserves.

13 November 2015

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The Pri(n)ce of Silence

Given London’s credentials as a highly cosmopolitan city, it is well known that our court system attracts family disputes involving international parties, providing they can prove some nexus to the UK.  Pauline Chai continues to fight her husband, Laura Ashley chairman Mr Peng, to have her divorce heard here, on the basis of her residency in Hertfordshire. Anastasia Goncharova had a minor victory recently in her High Court battle to have her alleged father’s DNA tested in her bid to prove she is oligarch Mr Bendukidze’s “secret daughter” with a claim to part of his $1billion fortune. This week we learnt that Ms Janan Harb, a former wife of the late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, has succeeded in her claim for a £15million payout as well as two luxury flats in Chelsea because the King promised to look after her for life, yet his son reneged on the deal.

One interesting aspect of this case was the refusal of the defendant, Prince Abdul Aziz, to attend the High Court hearing, despite Mr Justice Peter Smith ordering him to give evidence in person. Apparently the Prince’s advisers feared his appearance would result in “a media circus” and was concerned how the case would be viewed by the Saudi public. He has since been ordered to pay £25,000 to charity for this contempt of court by non-appearance.

Clearly to someone like Prince Abdul Aziz this sum is a drop in the ocean. No doubt he feared adding credibility to the claim by facing it (literally) and wanted to avoid the risks of oral cross-examination.

Yet the media circus has happened anyway, in part fuelled by his failure to attend. Mrs Harb’s story is not simply on Daily and in a raft of UK media but has also been reported by global publications including Arabian Business, New York Times and AFP.

International parties litigating in London need to understand that media interest in their disputes can be managed. Hiding is rarely a wise option. Our courts are transparent and our media cannot be muzzled as some may be accustomed to at home. Often the reputational aspects of a case endure and tend to outweigh any short-term legal or financial pain. No doubt social media across the Arab world is abuzz, currently illustrating this point all too well. Perhaps in this instance Prince Abdul Aziz would have been better off settling with Ms Harb in advance of this week’s judgment to avoid his much-feared moment in the spotlight? That’s one way to buy Ms Harb’s continued silence whilst muting the airwaves to boot.

4 November 2015

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