PRISM, news outlets reported last week, is a clandestine program under which the US National Security Agency obtained “direct” access to the servers of Microsoft, Apple, Google, AOL, and Facebook, all of whom signed on to the program. The disclosure came on the heels of similar revelations about the government obtaining call logs of Verizon customers and spying on journalists. As described by the media, PRISM, an acronym for “Planning Tool for Resource Integration, Synchronization, and Management,” appears to be far more obtrusive and Orwellian than previously thought. One anonymous source said it enabled the NSA to “literally watch you as you type.”
Or does it? Faster than a trending tweet, the companies mentioned as being complicit in the citizen spying issued unambiguous denials. “Outrageous,” said Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. “Never heard of PRISM,” said Apple. Those denials, plus the government’s declassification and disclosure of some PRISM details, cast doubt on the story, which drew surprisingly muted public outrage anyway. Verizon’s response, in contrast, seemed contrived and concerned more with containing PR damage. The Washington Post, one of the outlets that broke the story, appeared later to walk back its initial reporting as other media outlets found experts to assert that the leaked PRISM documents had been misread.
THE PR VERDICT: “A” (PR Perfect) for Silicon Valley’s tech giants, for keeping it short.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: Keep it simple. When the story is misleading or just plain wrong, don’t waste a second in responding. Don’t get bogged down in ambiguous language that produces the infamous non-denial denial. Sometimes PR is not just about PR; it’s about setting the record straight, and doing so before a story long on accusations but short on facts spins wildly out of control. Journalists can make mistakes and some – gasp! – have agendas. When the press bites, reach out to your journalism friends (you have made some friends, haven’t you?) to set the story straight. And remember; bonus points for acting aggrieved, not angry.