An espionage and hacking scandal broke out during the US presidential campaign in the summer of 2016. Quite unexpectedly, our company, KingServers, was involved. Today, I will talk about the way we managed to overcome this situation, what measures we took and what we learned.
Our company, KingServers, is a hosting company that provides single-unit servers rental and VPS for our customers and we also protect them from DDoS attacks. We have our equipment based in different countries: Eastern Europe, the Netherlands and the USA. We have been on the market for several years and now we’re making good progress. In addition, we have never experienced any particular problems and were not in the news headlines until the summer of 2016.
We have always paid great attention to our customers’ feedback and we have constantly monitored any references to our company on different internet resources by setting-up special Google filters. Last year, on August the 29th, we learned (out of blue) that KingServers had been mentioned in a Washington Post article.
This article was placed in the “national security” section and it concerned the hacking of the electoral system in one of the States. In addition, the authors of the article claimed that the attack was performed by “Russian hackers” that had used our company’s equipment. The journalists quoted data from private information security analysts.
What happened later could be described in a simple word — a wave. It quickly became apparent that this news was travelling very fast and gathering a lot of interest. We didn’t expect to find our company in the middle of an international espionage and hacking scandal. We had to decide what measures to take.
Attack is the Best Defense
At first, this situation was not pleasant. Our services are provided to customers working in different domains, and the fact that we were suspected of dealing with hackers, controlled by the Russian special forces which then attacked the US presidential elections systems, was not very positive for our reputation.
On the other hand, we realized that we had no real guilt. In addition, the US intelligence services didn’t bother us with any inquiries. Plus, the hacker attack took place in the summer, and at that time I was on holiday in Thailand, and no one tried to arrest me or even to interrogate me.
Having calmed down a little bit, we made up our minds to benefit from the situation. It goes without saying that we didn’t have any experience in working with the media, so we acted on our intuition. We decided to use an equally powerful and well-known media, similar to the Washington Post, as a response.
We got in touch with the editor of the NY Times and offered to tell him about our vision of the situation. Two days later, a journalist from the NY Times arrived at our town (Biysk, Russia) and interviewed me.
This article added some fuel to the fire, but actually we were unable to influence the general course of the publications around the world. Journalists and bloggers did not really want to study our case closely. As a result, their articles were exaggerated and inaccurate. Sometimes they simply published their fictions.
For instance, some guy studied my tattoos from the photos published by the NY Times and then made a conclusion that one of my tattoos resembled the cybergroup “Anonymous” logo and claimed that this confirms indirectly that I am the organizer of these cyberattacks. Others paid attention to where I live claiming, “he lives near the Mongolian border and obviously, he chose this place so that he could escape in case he was discovered”. Almost every journalist wrote that my company and I were accused by the US authorities of hacking. Yet we didn’t get any requests or accusations from the US authorities or special services.
One of the newspapers addressed the data center where our equipment was situated. When our partners asked the journalists why they were interested in our case, they answered honestly saying, “it gives us a lot of clicks”. A hot topic means traffic and growth in advertising. Therefore, we can say that by publishing inaccurate information, newspapers and blogs solve their business problems.
The situation was quite worrying because we didn’t know what reactions to expect from our customers seeing a continuous stream of negative information on our company on the web.
Anything but a Necrologue
The media hysteria had no impact on our company’s operations. We kept on doing our business. We did not expect that the black PR in the media would strongly influence our team, because we sincerely discussed everything and we knew perfectly well that the situation was just too exaggerated.
A pleasant surprise was that this did not confuse our customers at all. OK, some of them asked questions and they were interested in the company’s perspective — and we gave them our opinion. However, there weren’t many enquiries and a lot of customers just ignored the situation.
Nevertheless, we also managed to receive a lot of new customers. As more articles appeared in various media, this the increased interest in our company.We also received new customers who had learnt of us in the news (though we usually work with the B2B segment).
A couple weeks after our involvement in the hacking scandal, it became clear that we had actually benefited from the negative publicity. This was over six months after the events, and despite sсeptics’ predictions that we would lose all our customers, we see that, on the contrary, we were getting more and more.
We still haven’t had any inquiries from other countries’ authorities and security services. I have recently returned from Europe, and I was of no interest there as far as authorities and investigations are concerned.
How to Survive a Sudden Scandal: Five Practical Tips
In conclusion, I would like to share our insights on this story — perhaps, our experience will help someone to overcome a sudden scandal with dignity and without any losses.
- Don’t prepare — There are many companies developing various PR regulations, including negative feedback minimization. We think that it’s impossible to be prepared for a scandal like the one described in this article.
- If a scandal arrives, you need to understand your degree of guilt — If you really did anything wrong, that’s one thing. But accidental involvement in a scandal which turns out to be beneficial (as in our case) is another thing.
- It’s more useful to create an open company at first — After this rain in media, there comes a great temptation to close up and to not respond to any publications in press at all. However, this would only scare off your customers. So you’ll need some feedback in any case.
- The media doesn’t act impartially — The media have their own business. Yellow headers get more clicks and they sell more advertising. This means that your involvement in a scandal will be greatly highlighted. Journalists and bloggers aren’t usually eager to figure out who is right or wrong and write the truth in their article.
- Bad PR is not only a disadvantage — Our situation was not morally pleasant but it did not hurt our business financially. In fact, it even helped to attract new customers and increase our profits. So, don’t be afraid of scandals.