Last year, Booz Allen Hamilton, the McLean-based defense contractor, went on a public relations offensive, pushing to get chief executive Ralph Shrader and other executives into the public eye as experts on how the government can manage budget and policy changes in a thoughtful way.
Last week, the contractor got more attention than it might have bargained for when former employee Edward Snowden told the world about his decision to leak details about the United States’s PRISM data surveillance program.
In the days after the Snowden story made international headlines, the company declined to comment beyond a short prepared statement on its Web site. The statement confirms Snowden was an employee and was fired last week for violating the company’s code of ethics. A spokesman declined to say whether any speaking engagements have since been cancelled. According to the statement, Booz Allen plans to “work closely with our clients and authorities in their investigation of this matter.”
Other than that, the contractor has stayed quiet, leaving media to fish for context from the company’s blog posts and videotaped appearances developed during its PR blitz.
The episode has created a case study for crisis communications experts to ponder, as contractors feel out their role in the often-secret world of cybersecurity and data collection.
“I’m going to give them the benefit of doubt that they’re collecting their thoughts,” said Gene Grabowski, executive vice president of crisis communications firm Levick Strategic Communications. “They need to step out and give the federal government cover ... The nation’s security infrastructure is too dependent on Booz Allen. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is a point of debate, but that’s the fact.”
Grabowski, who has advised companies in product safety recalls, said he would urge Booz Allen to set up new quality control procedures to prevent security leaks, and have those efforts led by a reputable figure in the defense industry, such as former defense secretary William Cohen or departing FBI Director Robert Mueller.
“They need to immediately talk about implementing a quality control system, give it a name, brand it and assign an individual by name to oversee it,” Grabowski said. “They may have someone in the company who can do it. They need to elevate that person, give them power, name them and give them a special title so it’s transparent to the public there’s a person responsible for the new procedures. A lot of companies skip that step. They just say they’re going to ‘redouble the effort.’ That doesn’t work because the public can’t get their minds around something that doesn’t have a name.”
Booz Allen’s public relations problem, though, is unique in that the concept of personal privacy is less tangible than faulty car brakes or tainted food. Some experts said that could work to the company’s advantage since some polls indicate most Americans are willing to forego some personal privacy in exchange for preventing a terrorist attack.
“There’s a big difference between the American people believing they may have lost some of their privacy rights as opposed to seeing millions of gallons of oil being pumped into the Gulf of Mexico,” said Scott Sobel of crisis management firm Media & Communications Strategies, referring to the 2010 BP oil spill. “I’d classify this as a perception disaster. It’s very hard to touch and feel. It does not immediately attack any of our primal fears or needs like safety or food.”
At the same time, the fact that the contractor is dealing with national security could hinder its ability to respond in a transparent way, Sobel said.
“If Booz Allen was a different company and didn’t have a primary client who was the government — whose key directive was public safety — they would probably be more vocal,” he said. “But they’re probably being cautious because they don’t want to inflame the situation. If there’s an oil spill, you can be vocal about having engineers figure out ways to prevent oil spills in the future. You can speak immediately, and be transparent and proactive. But in the case of national security, you have to be much more conservative in what you can say. You could say something, make a mistake and cost someone their life if they’re an undercover agent. You could talk about something that’s a security breach.
“If you’re quiet, as Booz Allen is being, the public to a degree is going to be more forgiving because the posture is, ‘We deplore what happened, but we’re not going to make the situation worse.’”