I’m out on the road this week, right now spending two days at a strategic planning session with a large energy company. This is the kind of trip I actually enjoy- working with an end-user on strategic issues at the executive level where they really want to solve the problem.
The theme of the day is major disruptions- how to stay in business in the face of massive disasters that go well beyond disaster recovery. I’m just one of about a dozen outsiders brought in to try and get people thinking in new directions. Someone saw one of my presentations on responding to Katrina (I’m a reservist on a federal team) and thought a little on the ground experience might liven the discussions. I’m more than happy to stay at a nice hotel and tell rescue war stories while drinking fine wine (as opposed to pissing off my friends telling the same damn story for the 50th time after too many drinks).
One of the presentations on crisis communications was particularly interesting. No, not ham radios, but how do governments and organizations communicate with the public during a disaster? The academic they brought in had some very compelling examples ranging from nuclear power accidents, to the air quality in lower Manhattan after 9/11, to chemical spills, to product recalls.
One message emerged load and clear- liars always get caught… eventually. But they’ll probably get away with it in the short term.
I asked him directly if he knows of any successful cases where a corporation or government attempted to spin a situation through obfuscation or outright deception and actually got away with it.
His answer? In the long term- no. In the short term- yes, but the long term impact is usually magnified when the truth emerges.
The most successful crisis communications? Honesty, transparency, and openness (even if spun a little).
Seems like a pretty valuable lesson to us in security.
Any security professional will eventually deal with a breach, or on the vendor side with a bad vulnerability. The more we try and cover something up the worse it is for us in the long run. A few quick examples? Look at Cisco and the Mike Lynn situation. I hear there are some job openings at Ohio State. Choicepoint swapped CISOs after their breach, even though it wasn’t an IT security failure. We can go on and on- can anyone think of a single security breach or vulnerability disclosure where the organization involved didn’t get caught in a lie or cover up?
Same goes for vendors exaggerating product capabilities. I know one that recently changed their entire management team because the old CEO thought he could fool the market just long enough to get bought. Too bad the board didn’t buy it. He’s out of a job (but I’m sure he got a nice package).
The bad news is you can get away with it in the short term, but I’m not sure how that really helps you as an individual, or your company, if eventually you’ll get fired.
You see lying is like crack- a short term high, but in the end you’ll end up naked in front of a dumpster with a crack pipe in an uncomfortable orifice.
I suppose that’s okay if it’s what you’re into. Personally, I’ll stick to the truth and head downstairs for some free wine.
(P.S.- the exception to all of this, of course, is politicians. I think it’s either because we’re lazy as voters, or because they all eventually smell the same. Probably a little of both)