Digital Assassination: New Book Reveals Seven Ways You Can Be Harmed at the Speed of a Twitter Post

Brian Pittman’s spotlight on: Richard Torrenzano, Mark Davis, Co-Authors, “Digital Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brand or Business Against Online Attacks

Richard Torrenzano

“If you’re a CEO or celebrity, entrepreneur, politician, journalist or even parent—there is a risk today of digital assassination,” says Richard Torrenzano, who helms NYC’s The Torrenzano Group and has managed some of the most visible global corporate crises of our lifetime.

“We’ve seen online attacks ruin the lives of teenagers and end in suicides, and we’ve seen them hurt businesses and brands—like what happened to Sony PlayStation, or even to banks or celebrities that have been hacked,” he says. “Regardless of who you are, if you have a name, and you have a brand to protect, this is one of the most important issues facing you today.”

Mark Davis

“According to the black and white hats we interviewed about this, the danger will only increase 50-100 fold in the next two to five year—thanks in large part to the open architecture of the Internet,” adds co-author of the new St. Martin’s Press title and former White House speechwriter Mark Davis, who is also the senior director of DC-based White House Writers Group.

But “digital assassination” is not just about the technology. It’s also about human behavior, says Davis. “It’s now possible to launch attacks without any technical skill,” he explains. “You can buy the malware you want online, as well as the talent to deploy it. And now, anybody can impersonate a brand or make an anonymous comment online. You can do that with a cheap digital device tapping into Wi-Fi at any café. These things are getting dumbed down and hacking has become democratized,” he warns.

That’s why he says it’s important to understand the personalities and behaviors behind online attacks, versus simply the technology employed. “Looking at this through history, we see that the behavior has always been the same—but the platform is new,” Torrenzano says. “In ancient Rome, you could paint over a wall when you were slandered,” explains Davis. “But today, it lives online forever. It has instantaneity, eternal memory and is searchable.”

Torrenzano and Davis share these seven common forms attackers now assume in the digital era:

1. New Media Mayhem: “Gossip Girls” who pushed aside traditional media and balanced reporting.
2. Silent Slashers: Online damage to your business and reputation by unfelt “cuts.”
3. Evil Clones: Confessions to something terrible using your name and image.
4. Human Flesh Search Engine: Crowd sourcing that inspires instant digital lynch mobs.
5. Jihad by Proxy: Moneyed interests that engage in “motive laundering” to launch deadly online attacks.
6. Truth Remix: Spinning a bad fact into something far worse.
7. Clandestine Combat: The ease with which competitors or enemies simply purloin your secrets.

These “Seven Swords of Digital Assassination” cut and slice at reputations in different ways—and each can be devastating, whether singly or in combination, the authors warn in their book, which was released Tuesday and listed by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the top 10 books to watch for this fall. Read on for some digital assassination self defense tips and more:

What is the bottom line impact of a digital assassination on a company or brand—do you have examples?

Richard: The Domino’s Pizza example is a good case study, in which two employees did vulgar things online (that tarnished the brand). The company’s team put together a sincere response in two to four days, but in today’s digital world, that’s a lifetime. A 24-hour day now really is three digital days of eight hours each as you move around the globe. So, it was a meaningless response. Companies need top put processes in place so they can be more responsive in a timely, eight-hour digital day.

Domino’s had huge problems with their stock valuation then, and with customers falling off. It also cost them a great deal to revive their reputation.

Mark: Another example is when the Dow Jones Industrial Average lost $2 billion due to the online Emulex hoax (in which phony news was released about the company in August, 2000) in a matter of minutes.

The list goes on and even includes Apple. Someone spoofed Apple’s internal system and put out a press release saying that the iPhone and Leopard OS were to be delayed. Engadget ran it and impact was 2% (of Apple’s stock valuation), or $2 billion.

Richard: Dow Chemical is another example. Imposters—which we term “Evil Clones” in the book—called the Yes Men impersonated a company spokesperson and got on a BBC business show making wild claims and comments about the company. The stock dropped dramatically.

So, markets are trigger-happy today—you can see an immediate impact on valuation, customer loyalty and the morale of employees when you are attacked. And, again, it also costs to rebuild reputation after the attacks.

So what is the takeaway again for companies—how can they be better prepared?

Richard: Most corporations today aren’t structured to respond to an emergency in the digital world. They aren’t geared that way. You have to measure what’s going on in real time, ascertain who it is doing the attacking, determine why they are doing it and then decide what the best course of action might be—which could include not even responding. You have to do that in hours, if not minutes.

One of the things we say in the book is, “Age will need to approach technology with greater skill, while youth will need to approach technology with greater wisdom.” So, think speed if you’re an older company—and think before you act if you’re a young startup.

Mark: There are certain things you don’t want to touch or you’ll just spread them if you do. But generally speaking, you need to:

  • Have a crisis response plan in place.
  • Have a team in place.
  • Have a war room with resources in place.
  • Have the ability to do deep dive and understand who is attacking and why in place. This typically involves live social media monitoring.
  • Have a detailed decision tree outlining how to respond or not respond in place.

Then game it out—take a Saturday with your team and game it out with hypothetical situations.

How does the Netflix situation these past weeks fit into this?

Richard: I would say the Netflix situation is not an example of digital assassination—it’s an example of social media and community feedback helping to drive corporate change. Netflix tried to restructure its company, but got major negative feedback online form customers, investors and others. They didn’t expect that. They hadn’t researched that with their various audiences. The backlash was swift and immediate. Because of that, they decided not to restructure and listened to their customers.

How about Occupy Wall Street?

Mark: OWS is a social media phenomenon. We’ve seen other movements driven by social media in Middle East, etc. Where this goes, I don’t know …

Richard: The difference is that in the Middle East, the agenda was democracy. For the Tea Party, it was lower budgets. Those were focused messages—whereas this one is not.

How about the News Corp “News of the World” story? Is there relevance here?

Mark: The hacking component of that situation is. The paper used a digital means to allegedly obtain information about people and then coerce them to reveal more information—that is an example of what we call “Clandestine Combat” in the book.

Richard: In the last year, there have been several cases of similar efforts—like when Google hired PR firm Burson-Marsteller to harm another company.

Mark: That’s what we call “Jihad by Proxy” in the book. It’s also called motive laundering … It’s really an attack on one organization by another organization.

Which of the “Seven Swords of Digital Assassination” is the most common?

Richard: I think it could be “Silent Slashers.” You see that on Yelp, under certain circumstances, for example. They had a problem where many reviews weren’t true. Some small business owners sometimes aren’t the most sophisticated when it comes to dealing with this. They need to keep their friends close and enemies closer.

Yelp is critical of poor service, high prices or bad projects. If someone is making a legitimate comment about you, look at your policies, acknowledge the issue, say what you’re doing to correct the situation, apologize and offer an opportunity for the person to come in for the service or product again.

Mark: These platforms are always changing and getting better. Yelp now has proprietary algorithm that weeds out people flaming businesses or those who are just overly negative. Every small-business person must recognize that these comments would be out there online totally disaggregated already. So Yelp is a great thing, because you want it all in one place so you can address and fix any issues.

Richard: Yelp also gives you guidelines for how to respond to bad reviews.

What are your top tips for protecting oneself from “digital assassination”?

Richard: The most important thing we talk about is called a “Reputation Cushion.” It’s stuffed with positive posts like your work with charity, your resume, your blog—you tie it all together with links to other sites like alumni groups, industry associations and so on. It’s all about SEO, which can be your best weapon. If your positive material replaces any negative material on a Google search, that helps. That works 100% of the time. That’s a complete victory. Start there and realize that everything negative can move up the search rankings quickly.

In addition to building a reputation cushion, you must monitor your online reputation on a regular basis using social media monitoring tools.

Mark: Examples of how to get started can include simply setting up Google Alerts. But there are more advanced tools that don’t come up in a broad search. Boardtracker is one, Board Reader is another and Omgili is, as well—those are all free.

Richard: In the book, we provide the “Seven Shields of Digital Assassination”—one for each of the “Seven Swords of Digital Assassination.”

You also talk about trends we’ll be seeing in “digital assassination” over the next two to five years. Can you share some here?

Richard: For starters, computers will become a million times more powerful and hacking will become easier for non-technical people, as we mentioned earlier. While the Internet strips privacy from the rest of us, it will bestow greater anonymity to hackers …

Mark: We’ll also see more of what we call the “troll phenomenon.” This is an ugliness online and general belief that any expression of sentiment or sympathy is inherently false and worthy of ridicule. Most of the people in Anonymous are not true trolls, but there is thread of that there. Online trolls are doing inhuman things to people, for example, who lost children to car accidents, etc. That’s a cultural virus or meme that won’t go away any time soon.

We are also seeing a takeoff in satire online. For example, logos and brands are satirized with “Saturday Night Live” production levels online. You saw this with BP and others. It’s legally bulletproof. They can even put “sucks” after your URL and own that domain. Activists are getting into this now, too.

The only thing you can do is watch, be aware and let it go.

Richard: Another trend is that of digital combat marketing—competitors fiercely beating each other up online. This goes back to the Cola Wars and mobile phone wars. It’ll grow more fiercely online in the years ahead, with big brands talking about other brands’ products.

Mark: The Burson-Marsteller/Google debacle was a harbinger of that. They’ll be much more clever about that sort of thing moving forward.

What is your parting word of advice to companies and brands about how to protect themselves from digital assassination?

Richard: Remember that those with a balanced understanding of the technology platforms available now and timeless human behaviors based on the motivators of money, sex, power and envy will have best grasp on the things to come, as well as our future world challenges.

~ Interview by Brian Pittman


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  1. […] Assassination: Protecting Your Reputation, Brand or Business Against Online Attacks». Hier ein Interview mit den Autoren. (Ich möchte auch so ein Boot wie Torrenzano. Oder ist das nur ein Büroposter im Hintergrund? […]