Ashley Madison, an online dating service that helps people cheat on their spouses, prides itself on being discreet and protecting users’ identities. But after hackers who breached the site threatened to expose the identities of its 37 million members, the Ashley Madison brand has been tarnished beyond repair, say crisis comms experts.
Along with their identities, Ashley Madison customers’ data, including financial records, sexual preferences, and fetishes, could also be leaked by the hackers if the site does not shut down.
Jonathan Bernstein, president of Bernstein Crisis Management, calls the breach "the Wikileaks of the cheating world."
In light of the data breach, customers would have to be "really desperate" to use Ashley Madison’s site now, says George Regan, chairman of Regan Communications Group.
"I have seen some doozies in my time, but this is really up there," Regan says. "There are certain things in this business that you cannot rectify, and this is one of them. Ashley Madison has completely broken the trust of its client base."
Ashley Madison’s sole solution, Regan advises, may include taking a leaf out of ValuJet’s book. The airline’s name was irreparable after one of its planes crashed in the Florida Everglades in 1996. The company changed its name to AirTran to hide from its damaged reputation. AirTran has been successful since, and was acquired by Southwest Airlines in 2010.
"Ashley Madison will not survive if it keeps its current name," says Regan. "They should repackage the company under a different name, rather than rehabilitating the present brand; it has lost customers’ confidence."
On the communications side, Regan likens Ashley Madison’s debacle to that of Bill Cosby’s. The actor’s reputation is in tatters after it was recently discovered that he had purchased quaaludes to give them to young women with whom he wanted to have sex.
"Bill Cosby’s lawyers came out and spoke, he never said anything," says Regan. "Sometimes saying nothing is the best thing. What would you possibly say?"
But Ashley Madison is talking. Levick Communications is handling media outreach for the situation on behalf of Ashley Madison’s parent Avid Life Media, and the company has been using its social channels and website to keep users updated on the site’s data breach.
In addition to apologizing for "this unprovoked and criminal intrusion into our customers’ information," a company statement noted that Ashley Madison parent Avid Life Media was able to secure its sites and close unauthorized access points.
The statement added that the company is working with law-enforcement agencies to investigate the "act of cyber-terrorism."
The company is ticking all the right boxes when it comes to communications, according to John Hellerman, cofounder of Hellerman Baretz Communications. However, he notes that when a site which bases its whole premise on being discreet about adultery, is hacked, it is a bit different than your average retail or bank security breach.
"If someone hacks Target, it is just a credit card company that is going to deal with it," says Hellerman, who was previously an EVP at Levick. "This is different; and people are going to consider doing this kind of thing elsewhere."
He adds that Ashley Madison "should have had fatter, higher sandbags around their data."
To regain customers’ trust, Hellerman says the company should take advantage of this opportunity by "becoming leaders" in privacy management and security integration.
Even so, shielding the company from hackers and protecting its reputation are two completely different kettles of fish, he notes.
"Regardless of the communications around the breach and making sure users’ private information is protected, it is going to be hard for them to get people to trust them again," Hellerman adds.
Bernstein does not think this situation marks the end of the line for Ashley Madison’s business model, or others like it.
"The law of supply and demand, which the Internet fulfills better than any medium in history, dictates that there will always be some means for cheaters to facilitate cheating," he says. "Ashley Madison, or at least the people behind that operation, could be part of the supply equation going forward if they manage this crisis perfectly and are [really] lucky."