Anatomy of a crisis: Lenovo and Superfish

An exclusive interview with Jeff Shafer, vice president of global corporate communications at Lenovo, about how his company handled the Superfish crisis and what lessons both Lenovo and the industry can take from the incident

The Superfish issue at Lenovo is complicated both in terms of the technology involved and the scale of operational reaction the company had to mount. The issue was not isolated to any one product or market, and Lenovo had to bring many levels of management structure to bear on the situation. But as far as handling a crisis from a communications point of view, Shafer explained, the important thing is to stick is to principles and focus on communicating clearly and honestly. Make those a priority, and you go a long way to allowing everything else to fall into place.

Perhaps because he originally found his first job at Lenovo via a job posting in PRWeek, Shafer was willing to spend some time with us and talk about his recent firsthand experience in crisis management. Over the past few weeks the company had a hard time in the press as the story of Superfish—adware (or ‘bloatware’ as even Shafer referred to it) installed on some of Lenovo’s products—led to a loss of trust among consumers and even the filing of lawsuits.

"We looked at it initially as being related to some fairly straightforward adware issues," Shafer said. "It became clear quickly after that, that those assumptions weren’t right, and it became more of a security- and privacy-related problem."

The timeline of events in some media accounts has Lenovo turning a blind eye to Superfish-related complaints. In Shafer’s estimation that’s an unjust characterization, and he has a point. For any company that produces products in the millions, especially a highly technical mass-consumer product, there is bound to be a routine flow of technical issues, some of which may be serious but most of which will be of low-level concern. Knowing which issues to escalate gets into a much deeper operational conversation that goes well beyond the communications department.

But having the facts straight is one of the key things Shafer emphasized for PR teams that want to learn from the Superfish crisis.

"We have to look honestly at whether or not we understood things well enough at the very beginning internally. We were dealing with an emerging situation. We had the information we had; new information came along that significantly changed the story, and I think we responded to that as quickly as we could."

Shafer was frank that the company’s reaction may not have appeared to those on the outside to be swift enough.

"Our understanding of the facts changed," he said. "Actually we did respond quickly and recognized it was serious, but we did not have a full understanding of the issue. The lesson really is that speed must be balanced with having good insight. We moved with the best info we had available, but then things changed quickly."

Outside perspective

The thing for people on a comms team to note is how information coming into a company can look very different to people (namely consumers) on the outside. How things can escalate from complaint to crisis can, and will, take you by surprise.

"Unfortunately for Lenovo in the early stages the [negative] story really took hold, and we’ve got to be candid about why. It touches a lot of nerves. There are technology elements to it; and people use technology in very personal ways. There are security elements to it. There are privacy elements to it. And we’re a large global company; so the expectations are, and should be, high of a company like Lenovo."

In separate conversation on the subject, Bob Pickard, Asia-Pacific chairman at Huntsworth in Singapore, commented that another dimension to look at is the brand’s origin. "Lenovo is a Chinese multinational," he said, "and in global markets Chinese companies are subject to considerable skepticism about their quality and trustworthiness. Fairly or unfairly, the bar is set higher for Chinese products, and the last thing Lenovo should be doing is stoking new fears stemming from old stereotypes." 

In so many ways, Lenovo has been "surefooted in its march to become a mighty global brand", and so this incident was surprising and attracted disproportionate attention, Pickard said.

As a learning example, Shafer admitted that responding to the wrong problem in the initial stages allowed the howls in mass media and the vitriol on social platforms to multiply. That could be a particular point for tech brands to note. The routine with which they have to respond to technical issues may breed a certain level of detachment or dispassion that may look more like unresponsiveness to consumers or the press sitting outside the company. When responding to a crisis it is crucial to look at it through the consumer’s eyes and not the company’s.

At least initially, looking at the problem from the wrong perspective may have been the case with Lenovo. Ultimately the problem was rooted in technology and the company addressed it that way. But the issue seeped into so many other, more personal, areas for consumers; therefore communication had to be stepped up from handling it at a tech support level.

"We really had to deal with it in a different way" Shafer acknowledged. "It wasn’t just a technical issue. We had to have [consumers] understand that we were truly and deeply sorry for causing concerns and that we were working aggressively to, not just sort of fix a problem, but to eliminate the problem, to eliminate the software proactively."

The company has done that, via posting removal tools and offering affected users a free six-month subscription to McAfee’s LiveSafe service. It’s likely the cost associated with that would far outweigh any profit made on the original Superfish deal, and it just goes to show what a priceless commodity consumer trust really is.

Shafer said he believes that the tone of concern the company tried to convey eventually started to resonate with consumers, but stressed for the sake of an education process, that "there was an early lack of understanding on our part of what we were dealing with, and we’ve had to be honest about that too. I would say that in looking back we have to deal honestly with how we responded based on the information we had, and consider whether we can improve in terms of ensuring we have all of the information we need as early as possible."

For PR professionals in similar situations, he said, "at the end of the day, your principles are to try to communicate clearly; try to communicate honestly; try to own whatever mistakes you might make even within your communications. Try to stay focused on the fact that what you are trying to do is help people to understand what is going on.

"You just have to prioritize what’s important. And what was important first was making sure that we understood the issues so that we could solve them. And then we could communicate that solution. And then we can deal with the stuff that comes after that, to try and look forward and make sure it doesn’t happen again."

Lenovo has heard the message from consumers about wanting a ‘cleaner’ PC. And that’s something that goes all the way to topline strategy. The comms VP reiterated the corporate commitment to eliminating bloatware, saying he didn’t want to sound like he was making a pitch, but believes this commitment will truly define future products.

Before PRWeek’s conversation with Shafer, Charles Lankester, senior vice-president of reputation management at Ruder Finn Asia, likened the situation to when Nike had issues with poor working conditions at contracted factories. Supply chain issues, which normally are not part of the consumer equation, ended up causing considerable reputational damage to the brand in the 1990s. The issue occasionally resurfaces and still nags at the company, but with the firm repeatedly landing in the top 10 of Campaign Asia-Pacific’s Top 1000 Brands, it’s safe to say the footwear company has largely been able to move past the issue. But staying on top of it internally is likely a component of that success. Expect the bloatware issue to be a similar internal challenge for Lenovo going forward.

Broader lesson

"Superfish seems to have opened the lid on the worrying practice of ‘software supply chain’ issues," Lankester pointed out to PRWeek. "The Lenovo Superfish software was itself outsourced. One Superfish lawsuit has already been filed. Quoting security guru Dan Kampinsky in a recent CNET article "this signals to participants in the supply chain that if they intentionally put in software that makes machines vulnerable, they're going to be taken to task for it".

"There may be an opportunity over time for Lenovo to turn their cautionary tale into a teachable moment for the industry," Lankester said. "If Lenovo were to set these standards, without stifling innovation, other companies may follow, and it would go far in rebuilding Lenovo's reputation."

And it's true, at least from Shafer’s perspective, that from here on we are likely to see Lenovo leading the charge to offer "safer, cleaner" PCs. Talking about the industry as a whole, he explained that there is a lot of software that all manufacturers preload, and the origin of that was to improve the customer experience and maybe gain a competitive advantage. Some software is there, for example, to accelerate web page loading. But he also accepted that financial deals have led to some of the software being included. This is a ‘win-win’ when software venders pay to put enhancements on PCs, and Superfish was supposed an example of that. Clearly that’s not how it turned out. And to be fair, Lenovo has not been alone in the practice.

Some reports have said Lenovo may have made about US$250,000 for putting Superfish on some of its products. PRWeek asked Shafer whether the fallout from the deal hurt all the more, given the relatively small sum made off of it.

"I don't think that’s relevant to how much it hurts," he said. "What hurts is the fact that we need to rebuild trust with users who we have spent a decade building trust with. A very serious and important endeavor for us going forward is to make sure that we are clear and honest about what has happened, and that we’re also very focused now on how to make sure it doesn’t happen again and how to improve the experience."

Shafer contends the company has essentially gotten religion on the bloatware issue, and there will be far less preloading at Lenovo and much more scrutiny of what is put there. And just as importantly, much more transparency about what is there. From here on, he reiterated, Lenovo will not only reduce preloading of software but will take pains to make it known what is put on the PCs, including posting lists online.

Lankester also pointed out to PRWeek that the whole preloading of software issue "raises a worrying trend that has parallels with nut allergies: you can't be sure what's inside; and what's inside may hurt you. Or your bank account. The food industry dealt with this via cautioning consumers that ‘this product may contain nuts’. It seems that PC manufacturers may need a similar warning going forward—this PC contains bloatware".

Shafer’s reaction to that suggestion was a disarming chuckle, but he allowed that "it’s not a bad analogy".

And he maintained that "if this [crisis] really puts a focus on that piece of thinking, about what goes into the product that is put out there, then that is a positive outcome out of a difficult situation for this particular company."

From the computer-industry perspective, he added, the shift to shipping a ‘clean’ PC would be a significant change, hinting that maybe only this kind of disaster could have brought about such a sweeping course correction.

Pickard also observed that for Lenovo "It looks like someone was asleep at the switch, but the good news is that they are turning on a dime to correct the situation and I expect this to be a temporary setback."

"The company admitted ownership of the problem and undertook to make things right with their customers. Lenovo didn’t try to point the finger and blame someone else like some coward companies do when they lose their cool under similar circumstances. Lenovo expressed their company’s feelings using candid and human language in taking responsibility for what happened, with the same kind of refreshing candor which helps to restore trust in a hurry. It was really a textbook case of the right way to say sorry."

For Lankester the conclusion is that "Lenovo did a good job of managing the issue at a very superficial level, but it has thrown a slightly dubious industry practice wide open. Stay tuned," he finished. "This story has many more chapters."

Shafer’s closing advice for PR professionals? "Generally speaking, comms people should be as closely aligned with product teams and R&T [research and technology] and R&D teams as humanly possible."

The comms function needs a strong understanding of the company and its products. At a technology firm that may be even more of an issue because when a crisis comes up, there is no time for a sudden learning curve. Preparation starts in the day-to-day, when there is no crisis.

But when you do find yourself in the thick of a challenging situation, Shafer said, "Try to take your job and your team and your people and your company personally. But you have to deal with the problem in a way where it’s not so much about you. It’s about the customers and the people who are out there, experiencing this thing from the outside. That’s who we try to put first."


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