Perlut: Sony's lost reputational opportunity

Sony whiffed on a chance to find the silver linings in the cyberattack against it last month.

Elasticity's Aaron Perlut
Elasticity's Aaron Perlut

Whether you are a casual news observer or a rabid consumer, you’ve heard some degree of buzz about Sony Pictures Entertainment’s heavily promoted new film, The Interview, which depicts a satirical attempt to assassinate the huggable North Korean dictator, King Jong Un. 

Following a cyberattack against Sony thought to be related to the film, on Thursday the comedy was pulled from theatrical release due to a subsequent terrorist threat against theaters set to premiere the film – an attack now being attributed to North Korean hackers.

It goes without saying, of course, that the debacle has saved the film’s star, Seth Rogen, from being the center of yet another horrendous Rotten Tomatoes review. Beyond that, however, is the reality that opportunity is typically born from strife. And without question, the events have offered Sony a unique public relations opportunity – one that the studio quickly wasted – in positioning itself as a symbol of American freedoms and resolve, instead of as the quivering victim Sony now appears to be.

"In light of the decision by the majority of our exhibitors not to show the film The Interview, we have decided not to move forward with the planned December 25 theatrical release," Sony said in a statement.

Following its retreat, a Sony spokesman said there were "no further plans" to release the film. The highly educated C-list Hollywood elite then joined intellectual aristocrats such as Donald Trump and Fox News hosts to express their collective sighs and outrage about Sony’s cowardice.

Even the 23-year-old intern running former presidential hopeful Mitt Romney’s Twitter account weighed in tweeting, ".@SonyPictures don’t cave, fight: release @TheInterview free online globally. Ask viewers for voluntary $5 contribution to fight #Ebola."

Ebola! Yeah! That’s relevant! Good for you, intern!

So where is the true lost opportunity here? On the heels of a rare event like this, how can a brand or organization score a public relations victory, set themselves apart as leaders, and engage with their audiences on an unmatched level?

Instead of canceling the film altogether without any real pronouncement nor plan to speak of, what if Sony had followed Romney’s intern’s advice to a degree and released the film online for free? Or, what if Sony partnered with one or all of the major TV networks to broadcast the film uninterrupted by commercials, much like NBC did with Schindler’s List? It would have made a demonstrative statement about Sony’s willingness to forgo profit (which it’s losing, anyhow), and be perceived as an organization supporting the same American freedoms and virtues that our political leaders fail to support on a daily basis by spending 99.9% of their time bickering with one another.

Instead, we had to read shallow statements from the studio like, "Those who attacked us stole our intellectual property, private emails, and sensitive and proprietary material, and sought to destroy our spirit and our morale – all apparently to thwart the release of a movie they did not like."

Blah, blah, blah…noise, noise…whatever.

Without question, at a time when Sony could ill-afford to do so, it lost badly here on a film that reportedly cost some $44 million to make. We all grieve for Sony’s studio execs who earn tens of millions annually in compensation. I’m actually starting a Kickstarter today for them.

But more than anything, what Sony really lost was an opportunity to make a statement. Instead of standing strong and thinking strategically, the film studio chose to place its corporate tail in embarrassing depths between its legs. It’s a self-inflicted wound and lost PR opportunity that it will never recoup.

Aaron Perlut is managing partner at Elasticity.

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