How is TalkTalk responding to its hacking crisis?

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News headlines in the UK have this morning been dominated by a story of mass hacking of TalkTalk website. Between 08:00 and 09:00 this morning the company’s share price fell from 263.7 top 239.3, a precipitous 9% drop.

How has TalkTalk’s communications team responded to the crisis?

Proactive Engagement

TalkTalk has been on the front foot with statements and communications around the issue. It’s created a clear website for customers within the TalkTalk Help section of the website .

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The communications team has framed its copy carefully and tactfully; it’s also written as though it’s a personal statement from the Consumer MD Tristia Harrison, rather than as an anonymous announcement. The headline is about a ‘website attack’ (someone else is responsible) not a security/confidentiality breach.

The tone is apologetic and direct with some key words & phrases cropping up repeatedly – “very sorry”, “there is a chance that…”, “we would like to reassure you”…

Note that the statement leads on the launch of the criminal investigation, rather than being structured to say that TalkTalk has been hacked.

Following tried & tested crisis comms response guidelines, the website goes on to reassure consumers that the TalkTalk staff are working with the Met to sort the situation out. There’s also a detailed FAQ outlining what’s happened and what’s being done by TalkTalk.

The statement reinforces the corporate message that TalkTalk is taking the matter seriously – trying to mitigate the damage this hack will undoubtedly do to its reputation:

“We constantly review and update our systems to make sure they are as secure as possible and we’re taking all the necessary steps to understand this incident and to protect as best we can against similar attacks in future.”

 

Consistent messaging straight from the top

TalkTalk CEO Dido Harding made herself available to the BBC – heading to TV centre for one interview late last night in which she reinforced all those key messages on the website. That interview has been sliced and diced across all BBC outlets.

Ms Harding spoke of the decision by the company to make a statement as soon as possible: “hence why I’m appearing on your channel tonight”. She also appeared remotely on Sky News to reinforce that message of how sorry she was.

 

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Crisis consultant, Kitty Hamilton of KHA Ltd, says:

“It’s important that the CEO is speaking to customers through all media, especially as many will be extra cautious about any electronic information purporting to be from TalkTalk. Going forward the company should not only warn people but also provide helpful advice on how to limit any damage. They have done this, but they need to keep doing it.”

Ms Harding is a confident media performer, with some clear communications lines delivered live:- “I’m very sorry about the disruption that’s been caused to our customers” and “we’re working very hard to…”

She also reinforced that message of “we’re victims of a crime” rather than we have had our security breached.

Did she overstep the line by talking about her own personal liability?

“I’ve been a victim of this attack myself”, she told the BBC. This almost crosses the line – Ms Harding is paid handsomely to run her company efficiently and is wrong to align herself to her customers in this way.

It smacks of an overly defensive response, although she’s no doubt decided (or her comms team has) that this is a way of reinforcing the empathy she has for what TalkTalk customers are going through.

Consistency of message across platforms

Content on the company’s Facebook page mirrors that on the statement and from Ms Harding.

The banner header is still the ‘bopheads’ one, but the top (pinned) post is one line about the attack with a link to the statement. The TalkTalk FB team is trying to respond to as many posts/complaints as it can, but no doubt the customer service staff will struggle to respond to the current flow of irritation.

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Some companies might have suspended their comments, or hidden behind a corporate statement, but the Facebook posts are authored by individuals who are trying to keep up with a massive flow of negative sentiment and questions. The frustration felt by customers is obvious – currently (at 10:27 on Friday 23rd October) there are 710 comments on the statement post.

Meanwhile over on Twitter, Abbie and Debbie are working hard to keep up with the tidal wave of negative sentiment in a stream of pretty standard (but still human) responses. They’re cutting and pasting a link to the TalkTalk response page given the volume of complaints they’re having to deal with. “Please see this help page for further information”.

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Long term impact

TalkTalk’s comms team are managing this situation in text book style. But this crisis will surely run and run for TalkTalk, no matter what comms it leverages to mitigate the impact.

Casilda Malagon, strategic communicator and President of the UK Chapter of the International Association of Business Communicators, reflects:

“The comms team response suggests TalkTalk invested in crisis communication planning and training with the company’s leadership. The speed of their response and the consistency of their message shows that when a crisis hits the investment pays off. It will be interesting to see how the story unfolds.”

Ms Malagon adds: “Cyber security is now a top business risk for all industries and communicators should understand the implications this has for our profession.”

Rory Cellan-Jones writes on the BBC’s News site this morning:

“For TalkTalk, the cost to its reputation is likely to be very serious. Not it is going to have to reassure its customers that its security practices are robust enough to regain their trust.”

Crisis expert Kitty Hamilton says: “The two key things that may prove difficult for TalkTalk in the medium to long term is that they failed to encrypt critical data despite previous attacks and strict data protection laws. As the drop in share price shows, there is some way to go before TalkTalk is out of the woods.”

 

The International Association of Business Communicators (IABC) is a global  membership association with a network of 12,000 members in more than 80  countries. We deliver on the ​Global Standard in communication through educational offerings, certification, awards programs and our annual ​World Conference.​ Follow  us on Twitter ​@iabcuk.

Gay Flashman is a former journalist and experienced communications consultant.  Gay is CEO of ​Formative Content​, a UK based agency providing high quality blog  content, live event coverage ​and social media content ​for clients around the world.

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