Research in Motion Ltd. made it easier to communicate with the introduction of its BlackBerry wireless e-mail device, but the company has not been as communicative with the public about its own plans in its time of legal crisis.
RIM faces an injunction that could leave its 3.65 million U.S. customers without service unless the company settles its patent-infringement case with McLean-based NTP Inc.
The company has met privately with some of its customers to reassure them that the service will not shut down and that a settlement is far likelier. But in public, RIM has said very little -- in deference to the legal process, the company said.
"NTP obviously wants to fight through the media, but RIM has made every effort to demonstrate respect for the legal system and to comply with the court-ordered confidentiality restrictions in this case," Mark Guibert, RIM's vice president of corporate marketing, said in an e-mailed statement.
RIM's last public statement was on Nov. 30, when it said simply that it was devising a "workaround" system and plans to keep fighting to overturn decisions in the court and with patent regulators. So far, it has declined to elaborate.
And that has some analysts and public relations experts questioning whether RIM's approach might backfire.
"RIM is putting customers in a very precarious situation, asking them to trust them time and again," even as it adopts a legally risky strategy, said Ken Dulaney, vice president of mobile computing for market research firm Gartner Inc., which has advised its clients to postpone any purchases or investments in the BlackBerry service.
"We're getting tons of calls on this," Dulaney said. "Customers are disappointed that RIM is putting this legal case before them."
Don Goldberg, managing director of crisis communications for Washington firm Qorvis Communications LLC, said RIM is violating the basics of how to handle public relations during a crisis.
"They've already lost brand equity with their consumers," said Goldberg, who worked in public relations at the White House during the Clinton administration and handled campaign-finance investigations and the Monica Lewinsky sex scandal. "The consumer public will forgive you if you get out there and be honest and open and show a little humility, but they've done none of that."
RIM has "dominated the market, but they're at a place where the market is catching up," Goldberg said. "You've got people like me telling our [information technology] people, 'We need to find a way to work around a shutdown.' "
RIM's top executives should assure customers that its service will continue to work or at the very least provide users a timeline for when they can expect answers, said Scott Sobel, vice president at Levick Strategic Communications LLC, which represented Enron Corp. during its accounting scandal and the Roman Catholic Church during its sexual abuse cases. RIM should set up a Web site, or a link from its corporate site, to answer some basic questions, he said. "It's important to have a decision-maker presenting these issues.
"You can't be selling a consumer product and not be publicly responsive to questions about a high-profile case," Sobel said. "They shouldn't be ignored."
Although RIM has not talked to the media or made public statements, it has met with some major customers and resellers privately, according to Guibert. Some customers said RIM assured them that service will continue to operate and that a settlement is likelier than a shutdown.
Henry Ching, executive vice president for marketing and sales at Fairfax-based Simply Wireless Inc., said RIM chairman and co-chief executive James L. Balsillie told him the chance of a shutdown was very small. "I don't think people think it's going to go out," Ching said. He added that some Washington area companies have continued to fill orders for additional BlackBerrys.
Northwest Airlines, a heavy corporate user of BlackBerrys, also met with RIM this week. "We were satisfied with the information provided by RIM," the company said in an e-mailed statement. "As far as contingency plans, we have identified alternative suppliers of similar service."
Still, one competitor said Blackberry users have enough questions that it has begun to get queries. Good Technology Inc. said yesterday it had received "an overwhelming number of inquiries from partners and customers" about the potential outage, and the firm touted its lack of legal troubles. "Good wants to reassure customers that they have a powerful, protected alternative in GoodLink," Terry Austin, president of worldwide sales for the company, said in a statement.
RIM said this week that it is in settlement talks with NTP, but yesterday NTP co-founder Donald E. Stout said the companies were not discussing a settlement. Through a court-appointed mediator, RIM had asked NTP to consider delaying the case but NTP rejected that request, Stout said in an interview.