Last week on June 14th 2011, Sony began restoring online service in Hong Kong, the last two regions to be brought back online since the outage began on April 21, nearly two months ago. With the little bit of distance we have from the initial incident, I think it’s a good time to look back at what happened, and especially how Sony handled the crisis. To save you any pointless suspense, I think Sony did a pretty terrible job handling the crisis, and needs to rethink its PR strategy.
First a timeline of notable events:
April 20: PSN goes down worldwide. Sony announces that “certain functions” are down on their US blog, but no details are given.
April 21: Another post, claiming it will take 1-2 days to get services back up.
April 22: PSN blog confirms some sort of external intrusion took place
April 23: Announces further delays in bringing services back online
April 25: Acknowledgement that they know people want information, but still has none to share
April 26: Officially acknowledges personal user information was compromised, possibly including credit card information. A second post was made to explain the delay in informing people their information was compromised
April 27: Q&A posted detailing the nature of the attack, what is being done about it, and how people can protect themselves from identity theft
April 30: Sony announces phased restoration to begin this week
May 5: Final internal system testing begun
May 5: Announces offer for free AllClear ID Plus Identity Theft Protection in the US
May 5: Posts letter from Howard Stringer
May 14: Kazuo posts video announcing PSN restoration begins today for US and EU
May 27: Phased restoration of services in Asia begins
May 31: Complete restoration of services in Asia begins except in Hong Kong, South Korea, and Japan
June 9: Full restoration of services begins in Japan
June 14: Full restoration of services in Hong Kong begins
Now let’s start with what Sony did right. The list is short, but in fact they did do a few things pretty well.
1. When Sony did reveal that personal information had been compromised, they did a good job explaining the measures taken to protect users’ security and why they had to shut down PSN so abruptly. Personally I am glad they didn’t try to keep the system up while figuring out what happened, despite the huge inconvenience. The official response can be found here. What’s especially good about the response is that it lists all the ways users can check their financial records for possible identity theft, and how to use them.
2. To make amends, Sony offered a fair compensation package, especially considering that PSN is free to use. PSN users with accounts created before the attack occurred received a 30-day subscription to PSN Plus, two free PS3 games and two free PSP games, as well as a free one year subscription to AllClear ID. It’s not the full subscription service to AllClear, but it’s a bit more than the free service AllClear offers. For PlayStation Home users, they also gave each user 100 free items. What was nice about this is that Sony didn’t care if you have multiple accounts, so if you had two or more PSN accounts you could pretty easily get all the games they were giving away. Also, though it should be standard practice, they don’t set PSN Plus to auto-renew when the month is up, and don’t even require you to have a credit card attached to your account to use it. Any content you buy at the reduced PSN Plus price you can continue to use after the subscription ends (free PSN Plus games require an active subscription to use, however)
And that’s about it. Now what went wrong?
1. Most importantly, Sony waited nearly a week to reveal that user data was compromised. This is an unforgivable mistake. No matter what Sony knew at the time it turned PSN off, it should have advised users that personal data may have been compromised. Better to err on the side of caution and later discover that no data was stolen than vice-versa. In hindsight it seems that most users are safe, but there is just no way to know that in advance.
2. While I have no inside information, it seems Sony had no communications strategy in place for handling crisis situations. The messaging Sony delivered clearly indicated an out-of-date hierarchical approach in which a single message came down from the top and everyone on the ground had to stick to that message, no matter how little it resonated with readers.
a. Comparing the hack-related blog posts added to Sony’s PSN blogs on the US, UK and EU sites, they are identical, yet oddly are written in the first person. This is a beginner’s mistake, and only reinforces Sony’s image as a monolithic robotic beast.
b. During the crisis period, PlayStation’s Facebook page only linked back to the US blog posts, adding the same monolithic robotic branding effect.
c. On Twitter, all of the Sony accounts I could find also only linked to the blog posts and provided no personal feedback to PSN users other than vague “we’re working on it” statements.
d. When Howard Stringer did finally get around to posting a written letter addressing the situation, it two weeks late, which is about one week and six days later than it should have been. Furthermore, it was a terrible response, completely tone deaf to the audience expectations and attempts, but fails, to justify why Sony waited so long to inform users their information was at risk. You can read it here, but to give one example of how tone deaf it is, Singer writes:
“In the last few months, Sony has faced a terrible earthquake and tsunami in Japan. But now we are facing a very man-made event – a criminal attack on us — and on you — and we are working with the FBI and other law enforcement agencies around the world to apprehend those responsible.”
Comparing the hack to a terrible natural disaster that struck Japan? Really Sony?
e. Asia—Americans and Europeans might not notice, but as bad as Sony’s PR strategy is in Western countries, it is much worse in Asia. First of all, there are no Asian blogs, twitter feeds or Facebook pages, so most of Asia is in what is close to total communications blackout with Sony, and have no way to interact with the brand online. Second, the games offered to Asian PSN users were generally much less popular ones. That it took much longer to bring Asia’s PSN back online was likely not Sony’s fault, but certainly they could have been more forthcoming with information about why it took so long.
That about sums up my analysis of Sony’s poor PR response to the crisis, but I would like to comment more broadly on their very poor approach to PR in general. As others have stated, while Sony is excellent at advertising, it really doesn’t understand how to do PR.
As I mentioned up there, Sony is all about developing one centralized message and only allowing that message to be shared. What’s worse is that they try to hide this by putting real people at the frontline of their communications, people like Patrick Seybold, senior director of corporate communications and social media. Despite all the blog posts that appear in his name, they are exactly the same ones that appear on the EU and UK sites, under the names of whomever “writes” those blog posts. It’s kind of like reading some Kafka novel crossed with a bit of Camus, but with much less edifying results. I don’t fault Patrick either, because it’s clearly not his idea—someone higher up is making these decisions, and it’s unfortunate.
That said, Patrick et al should be doing a lot more to become a presence for Sony in social media. They should be making their Twitter accounts more visible, trying to attract followers, and becoming voices of influence that their followers can trust. I hate to compare to Microsoft, but Microsoft has done this very well with @majornelson, and there’s no market or industry reason why Sony should not do the same. @TheKevinButler is fun and great for promoting stuff, but you can’t use him to deal with real communications problems.
Sony’s @AskPlayStation Twitter account is one of its worst PR offenders. It’s TERRIBLE. The worse customer service account I can imagine, and one wouldn’t even need to use it to see why. Go ahead, open the page, and what do you see? “Response hours 2-5pm, Mon-Fri”. Again Sony, really? Three hours a day, and none at all on weekends? For kicks I checked out what Xbox offers in this department and found their Twitter help feed is open “Mon-Fri 6am – 12am PST, Sat-Sun 10am – 6pm PST”, they list the names of the people who respond to you, and they have tweeted over 584,000 times compared to Sony’s less than 900 times.
Oh and forget actually getting any response from @AskPlayStation, either. I tweeted them three times over three days asking them why I couldn’t connect to PSN after the US servers were back up before getting a response, which was “Sorry for the delay. We would need more information in order to help. What happens when you try to log in?” So I responded, and responded again, and again, and they just never got back to me at all. Looking through the tweets that @AskPlayStation has posted, you quickly see that it serves no purpose whatsoever other than to, you guessed it, redirect you to Sony’s official statements on stuff.
By the way I just checked how long it took @XboxSupport to respond to complaints: 1 minute. Sony, are you paying attention??
The last big failure I’ll mention today actually holds some pretty great potential for Sony. Last year Sony launched the poorly named PlayStation.Blog.Share (yet the URL is share.blog.us.playstation.com. Confused?), where PSN users can submit ideas Digg or Reddit style for improving PSN that other users can then vote on. The top ideas show up on the front page. It’s a brilliant idea, a great way to see what PSN users want. So what’s wrong? Sony hasn’t implemented any of the top ideas, nor has it even acknowledged them to say ‘hey this is great but we can’t do it because of xxx’ or ‘that’s awesome! We’re actually working on something similar, hope you like how it turns out, blah blah blah’. What is the point of asking your users for their input if you aren’t going to do anything with it?
Sony you have a great product and lots of excellent games. I personally find your game selection more interesting than what Microsoft offers, especially with offbeat games like Heavy Rain, Flower and the Team ICO games, but the big blockbusters like Uncharted are better than anything Microsoft has to offer as well. I really just think you need to do more to connect with your fans, especially in the US and Asia—both markets where you have a lot of potential for different reasons. So I suggest adding one word to your slogan: Play. Create. Share. Listen.