And the Bully Wins!

To paraphrase a Janis Joplin song, “Freedom of speech is just another word for not being threatened into submission by a hacker on the Internet.”

Okay, I’ll give you that was a push, but at the time of this writing, a couple of comedians exercising their right to free speech in a “free” country have been squelched by hackers that are clearly fans of a dubious foreign power.

No questions remain that these hackers had the power to infiltrate the systems of a major corporation, but whether these offshore brainiacs had the connections and resources to make good on threats to movie goers seems much more vague.

To their credit, Sony executives didn’t intend to pull the plug until its channel partners – the theater owners – got anxious. Thanks to those business leaders, every corporation in the world has just become a target for extortion.

But that’s all incidental to a communication issue – how do the powerless (i.e. – some nerd living in his grandma’s basement, or hungry North Korean) end up with so much influence over a monolithic corporation?

The media needs to share some complicity in cases like this. I may have suggested this before in relation to terrorism. None of these bullies would have success if it weren’t for the publicity generated by muck racking media outlets thirsty to break “News.” Even mainstream reporters fall in line behind the most radical of internet sources, often finding out later that the facts were incorrect.

For media relations professionals, this is a double edged sword. We rely on the same media for delivery of our messages (hopefully ones that add constructively to society) to audiences deem important. Corporate communicators and marketers strive to position the story they want to tell in ways that seem newsworthy to media channels that reach the organization’s stakeholders.

The hackers leveraged the truth in their ability to invade company computers to lend enough credibility to threats of physical violence that the theater owners wilted.

It is the perception of potential to harm, not actual ability to harm that bullies have depended on for millennia. Today the channel to communicate that threat has magnified from a shaking fist on the playground to a worldwide web of chatter.

The fist, in reality may be no bigger than ever, but the multitude of cameras and attention deliver exponential magnification.

However, I would like to believe that even though the power in this case shifted from the monolith to the ant, that there is a way to shift it back. If the markets demand “The Interview” and it runs in spite of the threats, the power of the hackers will be removed.

Dr. Michael C. Porter, APR is director of the Master of Business Communication Program