Heartland disclosure timing is bad news for its PR team

The January 20 inauguration of President Barack Obama was one of the most anticipated news events in recent memory.

The January 20 inauguration of President Barack Obama was one of the most anticipated news events in recent memory. The historic swearing-in ceremony and inaugural address dominated coverage, as did the accompanying balls and parade. In other words, if a company was looking to bury negative news in a traditional world, where stories were only covered on the day they happened, the morning of January 20 would have been the perfect opportunity to do so. It's a trick nearly as old as the media establishment.

That's why there's so much suspicion about Heartland Payment Systems' January 20 disclosure of a data security breach that infiltrated its processing system last fall. Blamed on advanced hackers, the breach was bound to be big news because of its size – the company's Web site indicates that it processes about 100 million transactions per month – and would take a momentous occasion, such as a presidential inauguration, to knock it from the news cycle.

Noted trade InformationWeek outright called the dissemination a PR tactic; security analysts were brutal in their commentary on the timing; and nearly every publication covering the incident mentioned the inauguration.

For its part, Heartland, which launched the Web site 2008breach.com to inform consumers about the incident, says it disclosed the breach as soon as it was aware that it was the victim of a sophisticated attack by cyber criminals.

Whether or not Heartland had to release the news on Inauguration Day is up for debate. But that few media covering the situation accept that explanation only solidifies the folly of attempting to bury bad news. Not only was the news still covered – as of January 21, more than 200 news stories had mentioned the breach, according to a Google News search – but it is also covered more negatively because reporters, through blogs or more opinion-informed news coverage, no longer hold back on adding color to their news reporting.

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