With the pressure on, Verizon shares nothing

The telecom giant’s non-response to the customer-data scandal has proven surprisingly effective. It seems, though, not to have had any alternative course of action.

Executive spin doctors for telecommunications giant Verizon found themselves between the proverbial rock and a hard place after news broke that the company had released customer data to the U.S. government as part of an ongoing counterterrorism effort by the National Security Agency.

The Internet and blogosphere buzzed with angry Facebook posts and tweets about Verizon’s “Share Everything” marketing campaign, but the company’s PR efforts during the peak of the crisis has more closely resembled “Do Nothing.”

So far, the strategy has worked surprisingly well.

It’s now been nearly a day-and-a-half since The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald broke the news Wednesday night that Verizon had received a top-secret court order from the NSA back in April, demanding daily records on all telephone calls by tens of millions of Verizon customers within the United States and from foreign countries into the U.S.

By Thursday morning, thousands of infuriated customers had taken to Twitter and Verizon’s Facebook page to express their outrage, making threats ranging from the discontinuation of their service to the filing of lawsuits against the company.

Many in the PR industry took special interest in seeing how one of their own would handle an emerging crisis of such epic proportions, only to be somewhat disappointed by Verizon’s lack of action. The corporation has remained all but silent, legally forbidden by the court order to disclose to the public either the existence of the government’s request for its customers’ records or the existence of the court order itself.

“When the court system prevents you from discussing it, you can’t discuss it,” says Gini Dietrich, founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich. “You can’t even say why you aren’t allowed to talk about it. You can only say you’re not allowed to discuss it.”

Which raises the question: How does a company handle a communications crisis when it is virtually unable to communicate?

Verizon’s only response thus far has been the leak of this internal memo written by Randy Milch, executive vice president and general counsel, on Thursday morning. Itself a handy piece of crisis communications, the memo neither confirms nor denies the NSA program or the court order, but it does disclose that Verizon would have to comply with such a request from the government—if one did exist.

There’s been no statement to the public, however—not so much as a post on the company’s Facebook page or the corporate website as of Friday morning.

“It is such a highly confidential issue,” Bob Varettoni, Verizon’s executive director of media relations, said from his New Jersey office before deferring an interview request to his Washington, D.C., counterpart (who was unavailable for comment). “There is so much legal pressure about what we can and cannot say; I wish I could be more help.”

Reports have circulated that Verizon’s crisis managers are scurrying to prepare an official response to the situation, even going so far as seeking cooperation from the Obama administration to help clear the air with some kind of public statement of its own. So, while angry Verizon users vent their frustrations across multiple social media platforms, the company is muted—and shielded—by a federal gag order.

If Wall Street has the final word in the severity of a corporate crisis, then Verizon’s silence has weathered this storm quite well: The company’s stock jumped 3.5 percent on Thursday.

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