Sony Hires Rubenstein, Threatens Journalists Publishing Hacked Data

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Sony Pictures has hired New York’s Rubenstein Communications to handle the fallout from its epic document leak, and the company made its first visible move to limit the ongoing bad press over the weekend by threatening to sue all who report on related materials.

Specifically, the studio’s lawyer David Boies (of Bush v. Gore and many other cases) demanded that all news organizations delete the “stolen data” they already have or will receive and agree to stop reporting on it. Essentially, Boies threatened to sue any organization that publishes future stories drawn from the emails and other materials leaked by hackers.

Sony tried to get the heads of other major studios to sign the letter but they abstained, noting that it might look like “a publicity stunt.”

The real conversation piece, though, is a New York Times op-ed from Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing and The Social Network. In summary, Sorkin tells journalists “You’re Giving Material Aid to Criminals.”

Sorkin’s argument holds that none of the information revealed in the leaks is the public’s business. Case in point: in the latest email leak, Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal and Michael De Luca badmouth director David O. Russell of American Hustle. The big headlines last week revealed that supporting actress Jennifer Lawrence earned a smaller percentage of that film’s profits than did her male co-stars (though no one seemed to notice that the same held true for lead Amy Adams).

Venture capitalist Marc Andreesen agrees with Sorkin:

It’s not quite so simple, though, is it? For example, last week The Verge reported on Project Goliath, a thinly-veiled attempt by major studios including Sony and the MPAA to act in collusion against Google. Vanity Fair co-editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein argued that “the hackers are playing the press as pawns” but that the industry’s ongoing attempts to brutally manage the message make reporting on its dirty laundry too tempting to resist:

“In an industry where public relations attempts to control the flow of information with a very heavy hand, there’s something very liberating about watching that hand get blown to smithereens by the Sony hack.”

Ouch. Ethics aside, any editor who agrees to refrain from reporting on anything related to the leaks is both making assumptions about the newsworthiness of the information contained therein and ceding market share to the many, many publications that will post on whatever the hackers choose to dump next.

As several experts unsurprisingly told Claire Atkinson of The New York Post today, the leak hasn’t just hurt the studio’s bottom line: it has also damaged consumers’ opinions of the larger Sony brand, which is preparing to launch a new streaming TV service.

We haven’t heard anything about Rubenstein’s plans to help clean up this mess, and there’s no doubt that many of the messages sent were never intended for public consumption. But continued threats like those issued by Boies won’t just fail to prevent future stories; they will also fail to endear the client to both reporters and the public at large. The larger lesson is that public figures — and these are public figures — should watch their own email exchanges very carefully.

If we were gamblers, we’d bet that Amy Pascal isn’t going to keep her job much longer.