“I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right” – Phineas T. Barnum
“There is no such thing as bad publicity except your own obituary.” – Brendan Behan
“I’ll be honest with you, this whole “The Interview” controversy is a publicity stunt.” — Colin Quinn
“How to turn a shitty movie from a bomb into a cause célèbre” — Bryan Curry
What is it called when you shoot yourself in your own foot and then blame North Korea? Münchausen syndrome by proxy? To do yourself, your staff children, and your country harm just for attention? What to call this? False Flag Publicity? Münchausen Marketing? Extreme PR? Did Sony hack and threaten itself over The Interview — not, as it was reported, by North Korea?
I personally don’t believe a single thing surrounding the Sony Pictures Entertainment fiasco, from the #GOP hacks to the threats of a 9/11-like attack on movie theaters that screen Seth Rogen and James Franco’s North Korean comedy “The Interview.” None of it. None of what has happened over the last two months can or should be attributed to North Korea or Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un.
There are three scenarios: one, there was a very embarrassing and revealing hacking event (one of 56 in the last 12-years, incidentally) that perfectly coincided with the impending release of a ‘desperately unfunny’ flop, The Interview, during a key time when at least 8 strong films are coming out concurrently; the second, everything, from the hack and release to the North Korean accusations were a Sony Pictures production, but separately, and they just happen to coincide beautifully (that’s why the original hack came from God’sApstls and then #GOP and then North Korea — nobody was on the same page until later) ; and the third, that there was a single orchestrator behind first the hack and then the threat of a 9/11-style attack if Sony Pictures released The Interview on Christmas — it was a full concerto for orchestra (who was the conductor? I really want to know).
Here’s a little secret: you can buy everything. Here’s another secret: everything’s for sale. You can buy world-class hackers. You can buy PR agencies so discrete that they can pull off Wag the Dog-style media manipulation, misdirection, redirection, and complete narrative rewrites without anyone ever having known, ever. If you have a $10k/month (minimum)-$100k/month in your budget, you can get just about anybody in the world to fabricate reality in just about any way you choose. It’s amazing to watch the best folks work their magic.
In a world designed to create fictional worlds that seem much more than plausible, why are people so dumbstruck by the possibility that the entire last two months of Sony Pictures Entertainment and The Interview news was the result of a well-planned publicity stunt orchestrated by at least a few key people at Sony, possibly helped by one or more new media marketing agencies and possibly a cybersecurity company who could easily break into the same organization that has been actually hacked 56-times in the last 12-years (Sony is not known for its ability to maintain its networks at any formidable level, oftentimes keeping whole lists of logins and passwords in shared folders in Excel spreadsheets).
Black hat hackers turned white hat security consultants remind us again and again on all the talk shows, post Sony Hack, that they’re guns for hire, that they are routinely hired by banks to break into their systems, steal their money, and then tell them how they did it. It is entirely plausible that someone at Sony could have hired hackers to crack Sony Pictures, release an uncomfortable amount of data (Sony has been hacked 56 times in the last 12-years, after all) and destroy an uncomfortable amount of hard drives.
According to Wired, none of the hacks, attacks, cracks or releases of personal, corporate, or private information was blamed in any way on The Interview, attributed to North Korea, or the Guardians of Peace. Here’s the warning note, verbatim:
We’ve got great damage by Sony Pictures.
The compensation for it, monetary compensation we want.
Pay the damage, or Sony Pictures will be bombarded as a whole.
You know us very well. We never wait long.
You’d better behave wisely.
It seems to be this all began as a stick-up. How did this hack go from blackmail to an international incident? It gets even better. According to Gawker:
The broken English looks deliberately bad and doesn’t exhibit any of the classic comprehension mistakes you actually expect to see in “Konglish”. i.e it reads to me like an English speaker pretending to be bad at writing English.
Was Sony Pictures so envious of The Fappening that they, too, wanted to shove their collection of embarrassing corporate selfies onto the Internet in order to get the sort of attention in the news, online, and in the media that they were used to in their glory days? I know, honest snappies exposing your dark, moist, underbelly might not be exactly flattering but they’ll surely be titillating enough to endure the short term shame and humiliation (don’t even ask me if I believe the entire Fappening was a publicity stunt itself and not some random hackers hacking into Apple’s iCloud).
And then there’s the accusation that North Korean Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un threatened 9/11-style attacks if the Seth Rogen and James Franco buddy comedy, The Interview, saw light of day, resulting in theaters nationwide turning away the movie and Sony scrapping the theatrical release, possibly even censoring the film or even shutting it down for good. Well, it seems like Sony executives say North Korea comedy ‘desperately unfunny’. Was the $50 million that Sony Pictures spent on The Interview a bad investment? Was doubling down in a bluff the best way to get through the bad hand? I mean, if the only way to win is by outspending your competition in order to not reveal your loading hand, that’s what you do in Vegas, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, and Hollywood.
“Good money after bad” is the unofficial motto of how to deal with very bad, very expensive, decisions. And that’s exactly what Sony Pictures probably did, too.
If I recall, Sony Pictures was one of my client back in the day when I worked for a DC-area new media marketing agency. Sony has over ten years experience in new media marketing, social media marketing, extreme publicity, and had one of the best in breed as a consultant for years. I don’t know if Sony Pictures works with them anymore but even if they’re no longer working together, there’s enough of a track record that suggests that Sony is well trained in the art of extreme publicity.
I spent from 2002-2006 doing covert PR and publicity campaigns on behalf of DC-area new media marketing and digital public affairs agencies. Even back then, there was enough discretion and enough compartmentalization that it was pretty easy for a CEO or CMO to retain me and pay my agency’s fees all without anyone else in the company ever knowing.
Very cloak and dagger stuff.
We would spend months preparing the way towards launching a TV show or movie, creating anonymous sites, entire message boards, produced content, intentional leaks, and even a number of acceptable sacrifices that would appear organic, natural, and consumer-generated — well ahead of any publicity or release — in order to get the buzz going so that we could, ultimately, turn a key and make things happen.
Even if Sony Pictures didn’t have this planned from the inception of The Interview, there is obviously a lot going on here. The making of lemonade when you get lemons. Even Sony Pictures-backed site Crackle, a very small competitor to Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon Instant Video, might get a big push if news about Crackle being the only VOD distribution channel for The Interview.
“Follow the money” was as good a suggestion today as it was back in 1976 when Deep Throat said it in All the President’s Men (Deep Throat did not actually say it in real life, apparently). If nothing else, Sony Pictures seems to be making hay while the sun shines.
Like I said in the beginning of this piece, I don’t know what happened or in what order. This entire event could have been orchestrated, a false flag publicity stunt, from soup to nuts or it could all have been the result of a very savvy crisis management shop that saw what was happening both in Sony Pictures being devastatingly hacked and in the piss-poor response to a very mediocre shock comedy and turned it into a national event — it’s all masterful. A masterwork. I hope the truth comes out and it becomes a case study in Media Studies, but I doubt that it will.
Why? Because too many many people have built up too much real news and have too much personal reputation on the line (all the way up to the President of the United States of American, Barack Obama) to ever reveal that they were so duped by such a stunt.
What do you think? I would be interested to find out if you fancy me a crackpot or if you too believe that Sony Pictures Entertainment and their associated agencies and support companies have the sort of savvy, boldness, influence, and discretion to manufacture such a “world” event out of whole cloth? Do you believe any of it is real? All of it? Do you believe that North Korea was involved? Do you believe the initial hack was legit. Do you believe a PR campaign of this purported magnitude and complexity is even possible in the Internet age? Do you believe a company would sacrifice authentic and sensitive data in order to receive the kind of publicity that results from what that data reveals? Do you believe that there are publicists behind these sorts of leaks and the sorts of leaks that occurred during the Fappening and its subsequent releases?
Some more background information about the hacking of Sony Pictures and the resulting North Korean threat against the release of The Interview:
- Sony Pictures Presents: the Propaganda Model: The Mighty Wurlitzer Plays On [PDF]
- The Evidence That North Korea Hacked Sony Is Flimsy
- Is the Sony hack attack a PR stunt?
- “The Interview” Controversy Being Called Hoax, Publicity Stunt
- Reaction to the Sony Hack Is ‘Beyond the Realm of Stupid’
- Sony Stages Best Pr Stunt Ever With North Korea Plot
- Sony Hack: North Korea Proposes Joint Investigation
- A Lot of Smart People Think North Korea Didn’t Hack Sony
- Absolute Sownage: A concise history of recent Sony hacks
- Forget the politics, Sony executives say North Korea comedy ‘desperately unfunny’
- What makes the Sony hack any different from the ‘Fappening’?
- Exclusive: Sony Hack Reveals Jennifer Lawrence Is Paid Less Than Her Male Co-Stars