Ghosts in the machine and the Marriott hack

Last week brought another large-scale security hack. This time it was the hotelier, Marriott that was the subject of unwanted attention. More precisely, it was their recent acquisition, the Starwood group, which was targeted. The business operates a number of well-known brands, including W Hotels, Sheraton, Westin and Aloft. The size of the operation goes some way to rationalise the scale of the breach, which is reported to have impacted as many as 500 million Starwood customers. To put the numbers into context, that’s second only to the 2013 attack on Yahoo, which affected 3 billion users. A distant second place, I recognise, but even so, these are astronomical numbers.

I don’t bring this up in terms of the crisis response; in fact, the Marriott actions to date have been laudable, including the neat idea of giving those who have been affected, the opportunity to use a web monitoring tool for up to a year to gauge whether there is unauthorised use of their personal details.

No, from a crisis communications perspective, the real interest lies in what was happening ‘upstream’. What I mean is that the Starwood hack is four year old! Its defences were breached in 2014, which is two years prior to the Marriott acquisition. The Marriott systems, apparently, are not affected. My point being – as is invariably the case with crisis communications – is that this is a crisis preparedness issue.

In short, mergers and acquisitions have always had their challenges for the reputation specialist, whether they were cultural differences, the inevitable job losses, or market volatility. The Marriott case, however, is illustrative of the inherent sensitivities of corporate acquirement in the digital age; principally the fragility (or not) of the systems, security and associated employee behaviours that’s characteristic of the newly purchased asset. To be clear, I don’t point the finger at Starwood, but make the point to best demonstrate the changing nature of reputational risk, and more importantly, to highlight a need to involve communicators sooner rather than later if an intrinsic threat – however feint - exists. The process of due diligence is tightly marshalled, typically, due to the sensitivities of the circumstances, but it’s vital that a link is established between those who delve ‘under-the-bonnet’ in the first place, and those of us who are tasked with managing the brand and any innate frailties thereafter.

This piece first appeared on the Mumbrella website:


What does TV impartiality look like in the age of Trump?

National broadcasters, such as the ABC and the BBC have a statutory duty to ensure that the information they share is suitably impartial. Fundamentally, the networks need to demonstrate a diversity of perspectives from a diversity of sources on a range of subject matter. This is not the same as balance; minority views, for instance should not be given equal prominence to the prevailing consensus. It’s what the BBC refer to as “due weight” – you can read their guidelines here.

So, how much weight do the broadcasters afford to the views of Donald Trump? His Chinese hoax theory in regards to climate change has been well documented – and stands in stark contrast to the scientific consensus, but he is the President of the United States. It’s a relatively easy one for the broadcasters to bat away, despite the President’s status – it’s not a position that’s widely supported (despite the tweet’s 66,000 ‘likes’) and Mr Trump has a track-record for outlandish commentary. However, despite its left field origins, the comment is clever. Why? Well it leads any curious journalist to question what exactly the Chinese are doing in regards to global warming. It’s a great example of framing an issue; there may not be a hoax, but it does put the proverbial tennis ball back in the Chinese court.

Moreover, Mr Trump’s appointment also puts the national broadcasters in an uneasy position in view of the bashing they invariably receive for their perceived left-wing tendencies – here’s a 2016 piece from the Herald. The dilemma lies in the key role that’s expected of any discerning media operator, which is to rigorously interrogate the workings of those in power, including the President of the United States. If they do what’s expected of them, the likes of the ABC and the BBC face continued charges of one-sided journalism and the loss of objectivity (which gives further leverage to the free marketeers). Yet, if they pull their punches, they stand supportive of a regime’s policies, however outrageous the facts. So, what will it be?  The question, of course, brings us back to diversity – the need for a diversity of views from a range of people. As the impact of the silent majority begins to take shape, the trick to be achieved here is getting them to speak in the first place.

Are Class Actions on the rise?

Centrelink, the Australian Government’s welfare services program is in a spot of bother. Days prior to Christmas, its new automated system started firing off letters for non-existent debts; lots of letters, 20,000 each week apparently. You can read more here.

The situation has, unsurprisingly, led some commentators to point to a possible class action if the matter was to affect the emotional or physical wellbeing of those in receipt of the letters.

Much has been written in recent years about social media’s ability to unite affected individuals in terms of such lawsuits; the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015 is one such example, whereby a plethora of platforms were used to galvanise plaintiffs to register their grievance towards the car manufacturer. Although, in an interesting aside, the dispute in the United States between Gawker Media and a group of its former interns did demonstrate the complexities of such cases, when the federal court ruled that plaintiffs could reach out to known interns via social media, but were not permitted to “friend” individuals on Facebook – see more here.

In light of such coverage, I was keen to gauge whether my instincts – which told me that class actions were now growing at an exponential rate – were correct. Now, here I need to give thanks to Monash University’s Professor Vince Morabito for producing a highly illuminating study on class actions in Australia. The study assesses the Federal Court of Australia’s class action regime across 24 years, from 1992 to 2016, which recorded 370 such actions. So, was it case of an avalanche of disputes since the advent of social media? No it wasn’t, as the study shows 189 proceedings filed in the first 12 years (1992 – 2004), and 181 filed thereafter. Clearly, the reasons behind such actions are many and it would be remiss to point to any one aspect of the equation being dominant; however, the findings do offer a resolutionary opportunity to start challenging my instincts.