Monday, November 07, 2005

Crisis at SonyBMG 

SonyBMG pitched into a crisis last week of its own making. It's still not out of the woods. The story is a cautionary tale for PR practitioners who might not understand how quickly things can go badly in the online world.

The story is technical: I'll try to keep it simple. The full tale is here.

SonyBMG in an effort to keep its music CDs from being copied downloaded software into the computer of every person who played a SonyBMG CD in his computer. The problem is that the software includes a piece of code that is vile. It is called a "root kit" and a "root kit" allows a hacker to take over a machine. Worse, the "root kit" grafts itself to the operating system of a computer then deliberately hides its existence, so no one knows it is there. A security expert who had played a SonyBMG CD was working with his machine and stumbled on the presence of "root kit" code. He had to work for some time to verify that it was a "root kit" and that it had come from SonyBMG. He then went to his blog and spelled out everything that SonyBMG had done. The news exploded in the tech world. Stories and opinions showed here and here and here and here then dozens more indexed here in Technorati. SonyBMG tried to backtrack by announcing a patch that would make the software visible, but that hasn't stopped the criticism.

What should SonyBMG have done? A reasonable individual would not blame SonyBMG for protecting its music in spite of controversy over sharing and copyright. But, SonyBMG should have realized that any attempt to hide code wasn't going to work. Transparency is best when critics are gunning for you. Secondly, SonyBMG should have realized that a patch wasn't going to do the trick once the story broke. It tried to respond quickly to quell criticism, but it used a popgun when it needed a cannon.

What should SonyBMG do now? It has two choices. The first is to watch CD sales to see if there is any impact from the protest. If there isn't, it might be able to proceed carefully and get back on track. If there is a decline in CD sales, it faces the second choice. This is getting rid of the software and going to something else that is identified and explained.

Since SonyBMG apparently bought the software from an outside vendor, it is possible that most people inside SonyBMG did not know about the "root kit." I am certain the PR department wasn't aware of it. But, there you have it. In the matter of a day, the company faced a worldwide crisis. The blogosphere struck -- hard.

Jim, did you see this incredible comment of Sony BMG president ? It is beyond immagination ...

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