Booz Allen hides in spy shadows

In a fortnightly series, Electric Airwaves' MD analyses how one corporate message has played out through the media.

According to the defence company's website, 'Booz Allen Hamilton subject matter experts are knowledgeable about many of the most important global issues of the day, and are happy to share their insights with members of the press.'

Employee Edward Snowden leaking to The Guardian classified information about a US spying programme was probably not the kind of insight it had in mind.

Booz Allen is a victim of Snowden's actions but it is not handling its PR crisis well. In the old days, government spies might betray or defect. In doing this secret work for government, Booz Allen doesn't seem to have planned for or know how to respond to one of its employees doing just that.

The company issued a brief statement within three hours of the story being published, saying that the report was shocking and, if accurate, was a 'grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm'.

Two days later Snowden was fired and since then it has remained silent. Its CFO made no reference to the matter during an investor conference presentation two days later.

Other firms might have rushed to announce an independent inquiry led by a senior figure. Apart from a commitment 'to work closely with our clients and authorities in their investigation of this matter', we have had nothing.

Meanwhile, media coverage has raged about the company's hiring and security policies, the proper balance between government powers and privacy, the reliance on private contractors in defence intelligence and whether secrets would have been better protected if this sensitive work had been kept inside government.

Booz Allen is neither taking part in nor trying to influence the narrative, which will surely have an impact on its business and reputation. Future federal contracts may be in jeopardy unless it can prove it can be trusted.

This goes to the heart of the company's crisis. The company's slogan, trumpeted in its annual report, is 'You can count on us'. It appears its US government client cannot.

Takeaway Tips
* Booz Allen does not appear to have followed the CAP process for communicating during a crisis: express concern, commit to action, offer perspective.
* News is all about humans so express concern for those affected. Wherever you stand on the privacy/security debate, Booz Allen has not taken responsibility for hiring Snowden and the national security consequences of his actions.
* It has not reassured the audience by making clear what action is being carried out to investigate the circumstances of the problem. It has failed to provide ongoing context or commentary to help influence the narrative.

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