Crisis PR Online: WikiLeaks 10, Bank of America 0

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Frantic internal review of secrecy procedures? Check.

Legal advice on the ramifications of full disclosure? Check.

Demonstrable — but hopelessly futile — attempt to limit public criticism by buying up potentially embarrassing URLs? Check.

Anyone care to guess how successful Bank of America’s medieval fortress defense structure is going to be against an information age attack?

As the New York Times reported yesterday, the WikiLeaks threat to “take down” an unidentified major bank has the leadership at B of A quaking in their collective boots. Fearing the disclosure of an executive’s hard drive allegedly revealing what Assange & Co have termed an “ecosystem of corruption,” the largest bank in the country has swung into crisis PR action — but with the agility and technological savvy of Dark Ages Europe. And if WikiLeaks really does have Bank of America in its sights, simple pity may garner the giant the first positive coverage it’s had since 2007.

What exactly is the bank doing so wrong? Put simply, it’s fortifying its defenses against…the truth. There are no claims here of falsification, shoddy reporting, or misattribution. In fact, the heart of the story seems to be that even Bank of America assumes that it is the unethical corporation that WikiLeaks has yet to name. And rather than responding with the digital equivalent of a sunshine policy and a round of mea culpas, the financial behemoth is hunkering down to defend, well, something or other. Reputation it ain’t.

Imagine a celebrity deathmatch with fighters from different millenia; in one corner, embattled lords in clanging armor oversee the construction of a massive stone wall while oil-filled cauldrons heat over raging fires. And in the other corner sits Information, impassive, unchallenged, and impervious to arrows. The bell clangs to signal the start of Round 1, and the only activity is the sound of slopping mortar on rock and the screams of another would-be defector being tossed from the parapet. For the fortress to win, it has to be under a crusader-style attack. For Information to win, all it has to do it sit there. Frankly, it’s not much of a fight.

And that, in fact, is the intelligent point that Bank of America and other future leak targets will have to realize in order to live long and prosper. Whatever you may think of how Assange procures his leaks, he’s really as much a harbinger of change as an assailant, and his message is that defensiveness is an antiquated battle tactic. (Really, what nasty online chatter does the purchase of bankofamericasucks.com prevent?) For forward-looking companies, the first step of great crisis management may be to open the doors rather than lock the gates.

8 COMMENTS

  1. i agree with much of this article, especially the point about business changing its operational response to getting caught out.

    however, a majority of the american public and the leaders it elects still seem willing to gullibly accept that what wikileaks is telling us is wrong, evil, ???. we accept major bailout money given to banks and ceos who created the financial disaster and huge sums spent to force democracy on peoples that don’t want it. no, i think Information will have to do more than sit there to get people to really wake up and change something.

  2. If nothing else, the actions of BOA suggest than they are fully aware of conduct at the bank that is something other than ethical, if not fully criminal: this suggests that there is an institutional awareness of guilt.

    Guilt of what? Interesting question, and we’ll probably find out soon.

  3. Hi Gander,

    You’ve got a very valid point, but I think it applies a step further along the chain… There is a fascinating disconnect (and it’s nothing new) between what people know and what they’re willing to act on. They may feel ripped off, manipulated, our outright lied to, but it’s not clear that B of A or anyone else would feel any swift and direct consequences on the consumer side.

    On the other hand, they’ve already been walloped by their share prices–an interesting metric of trust and faith that is probably motivating much of B of A’s frantic flailing. So we’re back again to the central question of PR (traditional and social): reputation and how it affects business. Just like in more positive social media work, the results can take a while to become apparent, but once they take hold, may define a company for consumers and–perhaps more frighteningly in this case–regulators alike.

    Thanks for your comment!

    Kate

    Kate Schackai is the Social Media Director at Crawford PR.

  4. AC,

    Absolutely right–and what makes it hard to believe B of A has a crisis PR team on this at all. 😉 It’s really too bad, from a forward-looking perspective; any org could take this kind of crisis as a signal to base their 21st century business model (and hence PR story) on cleaning house and becoming transparent enough to be truly customer-centric.

    Sounds like a long shot for Bank of America, though, huh?

    Thanks for reading!

    Kate

    Kate Schackai is the Social Media Director at Crawford PR.

  5. Right now BofA is doing its best to fortify their defenses. But even the thickest of walls cannot defend against air, which is the internet.

    Once viral and the information is pealed apart showing the thought process and ethics of BofA the damage clascade across the globe in a matter of hours.

    The fallout effect will create doubt in some bank clients but they have no where to go. It will be the market and shareholders who will be the biggest of critics. No bank is too big to fail anymore.

    The best suit, car and office should make you question who is getting the deal on the loan, you or “Mr. Potter”?

  6. Wild Bill,

    I think your tone actually perfectly expresses B of A’s worst fears–in the space of a few years, they’ve gone from “enabler of home ownership” to “arch-villain of beloved holiday movie.” Ouch.

    As for nowhere to go… I don’t know about that. I think customers have other choices, but my professional interest is really in the psychology of the company. It’s hard to imagine Bank of America going away, but increasingly easy to imagine it being replaced by a more nimble and transparent bank.

    Thanks!
    Kate

    Kate Schackai is the Social Media Director at Crawford PR.

  7. It’s very good to read some fresh ideas about how businesses should approach customers as a cooperative process, instead of objects from which to squeeze money as fast as inhumanly possible.

    Your comments about the increasing systemic need to have businesses leave behind a culture of Medieval secrecy are also most welcome. Transparency is a necessity of dealing with customers openly and humanely.

    Alas, there will be several such Medieval approaches to guilt before corporations and businesses in general realise a great new truth: WikiLeaks cannot be uninvented. It’s like Santa Claus, because once one doesn’t believe in him anymore, one can’t re-believe in him.

    Thanks again for your excellent article!

  8. Andrew,

    Thanks so much for your comment! Transparency is the humane thing–it’s also, to my mind, the only intelligent option when hyperconnected consumers expect to receive any information they want in the time it takes Google to return search results. Companies can either see that interest as a threat (bad move) or a reason to be a great business, through and through.

    As an aside, it interests me to see that some of the companies that have enabled this explosion of communication are actually the most secretive. Obviously, I’m thinking of Facebook–and I’m sure FB’s abysmal satisfaction ratings are related. Very curious to see whether or not they learn to take their own medicine. 😉

    Kate

    Kate Schackai is the Social Media Director at Crawford PR.

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