Crisis Comms: Why Sony can’t play the victim over “The Interview”

theinterviewIt’s crisis management time for Sony. Forget the celebrity-endorsed concerns over censorship, or the politically-charged debate over bowing to terrorist threats, there are a growing number of observers that are questioning Sony’s judgement in green lighting the film at all.

When Sony Pictures pulled the release of The Interview – a comedy depicting the assassination of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un – the flood gates opened and the internet did what it did best; it judged.

From a communications perspective, the problem facing Sony right now is that there are just too many strings to this crisis; from leaked emails containing incendiary comments about Hollywood’s elite and personnel records, to accusations that it’s set a dangerous precedent against freedom of speech.

It can’t have been a decision that was made lightly. In fact Sony only announced the decision after several major US cinema chains pulled the film from their schedules over security fears. Threats purported to have been made by the hackers who infiltrated Sony’s networks last month, suggested audiences at theatres would face a “bitter fate”.

Financially that’s a $44m investment down the pan; but the PR damage will almost certainly push this figure higher.

Sony can’t play the victim

The fundamental problem is that despite being illegally hacked and forced into a corner by one of the last great communist regimes, Sony isn’t able to play the victim. Leaked, and inflammatory emails first saw to that; and now some are questioning whether Sony made a grave error [in artistic judgement] by even approving the project.

Even The LA Times and The Washington Post concede that North Korea has every right to be upset about the film.

Headline from the LA Times
Headline from the LA Times (17th Dec 2014)

Regardless of the politics (I assume the majority are in agreement that living in North Korean is no picnic), let’s not forget that this is a film about the assassination of a living head of state. Reverse the roles and imagine a glossy film, produced in the Middle East, with leading actors and a $44m budget, about the assassination of President Obama or David Cameron; and for good measure throw in a few racial or religious stereotypes.

The Washington Post (16th Dec 2014)
The Washington Post (16th Dec 2014)

Was Sony Pictures a little reckless in pushing this project through?

History is littered with examples of films that lambast foreign leaders – typically those considered enemies of the state. Bin Laden, Hitler, Hussein. They’ve all been targets. Yet, the films that portray their ultimate demise have historically been released after their deaths.  I can’t think of another film that adds a comedic touch to the assassination of a living leader.

Ok, so it’s difficult to feel sorry for Kim Jong-un, but you can kind of see their point.

The North Koreans have made their position clear for several months. A state sponsored media report from June 2014 called the movie an “act of war”. Was it right for hackers to infiltrate Sony’s network, or to make threats against members of the public? Of course not, but Sony Pictures must have known it was treading a fine line when the project was given the green light. Leaked emails from director Seth Rogen even describe the need to make Kim Jong-un’s death “less gory”.

“There are currently four burn marks on his face. We will take out three of them, leaving only one. We reduce the flaming hair by 50%… The head explosion can’t be more obscured than it is because we honestly feel that if it’s any more obscured you won’t be able to tell it’s exploding and the joke won’t work. Do you think this will help?”

Read that again and tell me that this isn’t a little troubling. Yes, we have freedom of speech, but Sony also has a collective moral compass – and let’s not forget that its compass typically points to Japan, a traditionally conservative culture.

Listen, I don’t imagine for one second that this turn of events is going to sway public opinion and open mass sympathy for one of the world’s few remaining dictators. However, Sony Pictures – like any corporation – has a duty of care towards its shareholders. The green light on this film was a risky decision from day one. Studio co-chair Amy Pascal is already in hot water after hacked emails were released and, despite Sony Pictures contributing only 10% to Sony’s revenues, the events of the last few months have undoubtedly hit the company’s share price (which has fallen 5% since the hack was revealed).

Sony Pictures’ PR machine is no doubt working at full-pelt with damage limitation front of mind. It engaged Rubenstein Communications shortly after the hacking scandal to manage the fall-out that undoubtedly follows the release of private emails, salary details and more. It also has to respond customers, politicians and media who will accuse Sony of backing down to terrorists.

If that’s not bad enough the internal battles will also be raging. I’m almost positive the US teams will be battling the Sony Corporate team in Japan – a country where crisis communications means staying tight-lipped.

Crisis recommendations

Firstly, what the team shouldn’t do is focus its strategy around the “freedom of speech” angle. I worry that this is already what it’s doing. Another PR specialist linked to Sony Pictures, Matthew Hiltzik, already tweeted on the subject and tried to instil some FUD by suggesting that journalistic integrity would be next to fall under the hammer of censorship.

Are Sony's PR advisors are exploiting FUD?
Are Sony’s PR advisors are exploiting FUD?

It’s difficult to play the victim-card and cite freedom of speech if you are also being scrutinized for an error in artistic judgement. Freedom of speech is one thing but cultural sensibilities and the question of what’s in good taste is another. This was an error of judgement, plain and simple, and I’d personally be advising them to take that line.

We may live in a word where an email conversation about flaming hair, exploding heads and the acceptable number of burns marks to show on a face is perfectly normal, but there’s still a place for humility.

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