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How Obama Took Sony’s Crisis From Bad to Worse

If there are such a thing as textbooks in the field of crisis management, the Sony Pictures hack might end up in the chapter labeled “Worst Case Scenario.”

But as much as Sony seemed to mishandle its sorry situation in recent days, the severity of the circumstances Sony faced are so extreme that it begs the question of whether anyone could have handled it better. Every step of the way Sony has been faced with no-win situations and just plain bad luck.

Just when things couldn’t have looked any worse for the studio, President Obama turned sharply critical of Sony in a news conference Friday, second-guessing its decision to withdraw “The Interview” from theaters.

Why he bothered to pass judgment on Sony at all may have come as some surprise at a time when assembled reporters were likely more interested in hearing more about the investigation into North Korea’s involvement, as well as the U.S. response.

Cynics might suggest that targeting Sony gave Obama something to distract from the precious little he offered on what he knew or planned to do next. Blaming the studio also shifts already mounting criticism that the U.S. lacks any coherent cyber-security strategies despite the growing number of attacks pounding not only the government but many other corporations.

In other words, think of the Obama subtext thusly: “Cut me some slack on not defining what exactly the ‘proportionate’ response to North Korea will be because, hey, it’s not my fault (cue finger-point at Sony).”

There’s also a more generous interpretation of the president’s motives. Second-term presidents are more inclined to follow their own convictions, and a constitutional scholar like Obama may genuinely take offense at Sony not doing more to stand up for the First Amendment.

It’s interesting to note that this isn’t the first time this winter that Obama has inserted himself forcefully and unexpectedly into the media business. Just think of the tough stance he took last month pressuring the FCC to enforce net neutrality.

But whereas that probably won’t do much to alter the course of a battle that’s probably going to play out on Capitol Hill for at least another year, Obama’s Sony remarks ratcheted up the pressure on the studio to get this movie released somehow, some way, soon.

What happened after Obama’s comments didn’t help matters, and here Sony only has itself to blame. Sony Pictures chairman Michael Lynton gave an interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria in which he appeared to rebut the president’s assertion that Sony didn’t consult with the White House with regard to yanking the film. But what wasn’t clear from his remarks was that the consultation with the administration occurred before the decision to pull the film.

That same day Obama sat down with CNN’s Candy Crowley for a separate interview in which he made clear the White House wasn’t consulted specifically about pulling the film. The mere fact that the president saw fit to even address Lynton’s remarks is bad enough, but Obama’s clarification made Lynton seem to have engaged in obfuscation. PR 101: Getting caught in a he said/she said with the president of the United States is not generally a good idea (unless you’re John Boehner).

In interviews that day on CNN and NPR, Lynton also made clear that Sony was actively seeking new digital distribution alternatives for “The Interview.” That represented a contradiction of the stance the studio had taken just days earlier when emphatically stating that the movie was “canceled” and not to appear on theaters or any other kind of platform. Whether Sony didn’t intend to shut the door so tight on future options for “The Interview” or Obama simply made it impossible to maintain that stance going forward is anybody’s guess.

What’s strange about this new focus on finding a digital distribution alternative is that while Sony gets to avoid the scorn of Obama and many in Hollywood for not upholding the First Amendment, it puts the studio right back in the crosshairs of the hackers the second a release plan gets announced. Getting criticized by the president may not be fun for Lynton, but it sure sounds better than suffering yet another round of “Read My Private Emails.”

Let’s not forget the hackers purport to have plenty of “gifts” they seemed more than prepared to put under his Christmas tree come Dec. 25. Perhaps after withstanding nine previous data dumps, you get so numb you don’t even feel it when the leak total climbs into double digits.

If Sony gained any ground Friday, it was probably in shifting the blame for its decision to the exhibitors, and rightfully so. It’s an oversimplifcation to put Sony and Sony alone in the hot seat, because had the major theater chains agreed to screen the movie, “The Interview” would be good to go for Dec. 25.

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