Putin was pummeling us. Ukraine was headed to elections and the Russian propaganda machine shifted into overdrive to discredit the process.
I had just begun work on a counter-crisis communication strategy at the White House.
It was an effort to more proactively respond to emerging international issues. We decided to jump over refining the theory and put it to the test.
A multi-agency social media taskforce was assembled to aggressively counter Russian misinformation. They didn’t push policy points, they pushed the envelope.
Their edgy messages, videos, and graphics persuasively disrobed the fiction the Kremlin was peddling. This clear communications campaign also helped to unifify and focus our allies’ messaging.
By moving to an offensive posture, I believe we countered the Russians misinformation propaganda.
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I also believe it helped get Ukraine through elections. This approach informed the U.S. government’s messaging and counter-messaging methodologies vis-à-vis Da’esh.
As global threats grow, it’s no longer just governments that need these kind of counter attack capabilities. Entertainment and tech companies are increasingly being targeted by international adversaries. They need the capacity to reduce this risk and respond to threats.
The Sony Hack
Not creating a counter-attack strategy will result in a Sony-like scenario or worse. Unfortunately, many took the wrong lessons from that incident.
Preventing a foreign attack requires more than a technical fix or just avoiding sensitive international subjects.
Improving information security systems leaves unaddressed the myriad motivations behind these kind of attacks. Retribution is but one of many reasons you’ll be targeted.
The Sony hack showed the amount of damage and attention that can result from hacking into high-profile companies. The next incident may not even involve accessing sensitive information.
As networks are enhanced, perpetrators will search for alternative vulnerabilities. These could be social media accounts or spreading salacious misinformation to damage a company or popular entrepreneur’s reputation.
Unlike many domestic and criminal hackers, politically-motivated foreign groups see cyberattacks as a means, not an end.
Social Media Hacks
As perhaps the most visible global symbols of America, entertainment companies are prime targets for those looking to get our country’s attention and make international headlines.
From CNN to Gawker, there were a number of attacks in just the past couple months on western media web sites and social media accounts.
These efforts will continue and spread to other influential targets. Increasingly, actors such as ISIS or other extremist groups are engaging in these tactics as the most expedient way to get significant attention for their cause.
Entertainment companies are ideal for this purpose. We will also see more attacks by foreign groups that seek to inflict economic damage.
Stealing content and sullying the names of well-known companies and individuals is a relatively easy way to harm the United States’ global brand and economy.
So what can be done to deter and defeat these threats? Cyber attacks are akin to flashfloods. The flood you’re expecting is rarely the flood you get.
What happens when the levees break? It won’t be enough to have a chain of people with buckets. As I saw at the White House, these reputational counter measures are too often begun only as the floodwaters rise.
The advantage of a vulnerability like cyber security is you know what is on your network and with a fair degree of accuracy can plan for the worst possible scenarios.
Applying these counter-crisis principles provides you with the time, tools, and templates needed to respond to those scenarios.
Creating a map of countermeasures for the most sensitive information on your network ensures you’ll have responses, research, resources at the ready.
Yet, most of what is required to handle these international incidents are’nt the standard materials in your publicist’s toolkit.
In military terms, it’s called asymmetric warfare. From Russia to ISIS, today’s cyberspace is seen as an extension of the battlefield.
This requires Hollywood to stock their arsenals with the equipment and experts to effectively engage in this kind of international communications conflict.
Developing a Response
Many believe responding is the government’s role. As we have seen in the wake of recent events, government often acts too slowly, too small, if at all.
Developing response capabilities doesn’t require you to acquire a fleet of aircraft carriers, special operations forces, or even your own hackers.
When North Korea recently tested a nuclear missile, Seoul’s first retaliatory act was restarting broadcasts of K Pop across the border. This is certainly something Hollywood could handle.
Indeed, the entertainment industry is well-suited to deliver a devastating blow to dictators and extremists by creating satirical content or an app that enables greater transparency.
Even so, a song or software does not a strategy make. An effective response requires a series of public and precision programs to strike and sustain pressure at a series of sensitive points.
If built ahead of time and correctly, such counter-crisis capacities can also serve as a significant deterrent. The publicity or economic value potential attackers can extract will be substantially diminished if they know you’re ready to react.
They’re likely to look for a more vulnerable target.
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Global risks will only get more common, complex, and challenging to address. As government and major institutions harden their networks, foreign attackers will look for other highly visible targets.
New actors will emerge with a particular interest to replicate the earned media ISIS generated. For these reasons, the entertainment industry will increasingly find itself dragged into international conflicts.
Whether or not this drama has a happy ending largely depends on how well they understand, prepare, and proactively counter these threats.