Crisis Management Advice to Verizon and others on NSA Revelations - 'Silence is Golden'

By Peter Bernstein June 13, 2013

As I have noted in various postings on the NSA revelations that are dominating the headlines in the U.S. and around the world, all of the stakeholders have more than just legal issues. A not insignificant challenge for everyone is managing public perceptions relating to trust—as in can we really trust anything anyone is saying at the moment. 

This is a classic crisis management situation in every respect except one. In almost all crises, there are two rules that public relations advisors tell their embattled clients:

  • The exposure of a cover-up is almost always worse than the original sin
  • “Honesty is the best policy”

As a leading expert, David E. Johnson, CEO of Strategic Vision, LLC, explained to me, “In the case of the first revelation about Verizon providing NSA with millions of call records they would be well advised to remain in the bat cave.” The colorful explanation for those not familiar with the Batman comics, TV show or movies, is that despite the great intentions of the Caped Crusader to come out of his lair to make things right, there are those rare times when you need to resist temptation. In regards to Verizon, Johnson believes this is one of those instances. 

 As Johnson pointed out, what is going on with the Verizon part of the story, which was the first to be revealed, is that it has been super-ceded by subsequent events dealing with the PRSIM revelations. He stated, “Usually you want to get out in front of the story and on this one you don’t. You don’t want the focus on you, and you don’t want your customers angry at you.” 

He went on to say that at first it appeared that Verizon might become the poster child for turning over sensitive information. However, as events have unfolded the perception has been that Verizon did what legally they were compelled to do. It appears that while phone records were handed over, no phone calls were intercepted and listened to, and that in all likelihood based on PRISM they were not the only service provider hit with FISA-ordered requests. Plus, the explanation as to why the records were needed, to track traffic patterns to known and suspected terrorists, for the moment appears to fall in the public’s zone of reasonableness in the context of the bigger debate about civil liberties versus the need to know for national security. 

While all of this could come undone if it turns out the government was recording and listening to all those calls and not just mapping them, at least for the moment Verizon is not the target of anger, and as Johnson reiterated, “Silence is the best crisis management tactic they can follow.” He added that in fact it is his belief that if you did a poll right now, “1/3 of people would not even be able to name Verizon as being involved, and that is a good thing. They should not be feeding the media beast.”

I also asked Johnson if he had any advice to the ISPs that were identified as PRISM participants, especially since there is still doubt as to whether they were willing partners with NSA or were in essence hacked by NSA with the FISA court’s permission. He noted, “This is a very gray area of the law, and that because of the legal ramifications, the less one says now the better because you don’t want it possibly used against you down the road.”  

I asked if this held for Google’s letter to the DoJ and FBI heads seeking permission to make public the number of FISA requests as a means to let people understand that threats to national security are very real and the government is being vigilant. 

Johnson noted, “At the end of the day, this is not just about policy issues it is also about competitive positioning. Google very much would like to be perceived as a trustworthy actor, and this was a nice way of positioning itself versus its competitors on that front. Plus, as this evolves, it is going to boil down to questions of trust and the more the industry can position the government as being untrustworthy the better it is for them.” 

That is actually the main theme to watch as events progress. Like it or not this has now become a political hot potato. The more industry can say they are following the law and that this is a matter for the politicians, the more their role will shrink as a lightning rod for public discourse and possibly disgust and distrust. The industry will be well-served to let the government—Congress as well as the Obama Administration and the intelligence community be the bad guys.

As noted at the top, despite this being a classic crisis management situation, at least for the industry the normal rules of the road do not apply. Silence for now is golden.  

Edited by Alisen Downey
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