What Sony Can Teach Us About Responding to Threats

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If you’ve seen the news over the last few weeks, then you are familiar with Sony Pictures’ computer system being hacked for its movie The Interview. The hackers, outraged about a film condoning the assassination of North Korea’s leader, released personal data on 47,000 celebrities and Sony employees, stole intellectual property, and exposed numerous private, behind-the-scenes emails. They then threatened a series of violent attacks against any cinema screening The Interview.

I won’t get into the question of how a comedy starring Seth Rogen and James Franco has triggered an international dialogue on the security and privacy of electronic information. From a leadership perspective, this story and Sony’s announcement yesterday that it will indefinitely postpone releasing The Interview has me thinking about the ways we respond to threats.

We are deeply saddened by this brazen effort to suppress the distribution of a movie, and in the process do damage to our company, our employees and the American public. We stand by our filmmakers and their right to free expression and are extremely disappointed by this outcome. – Sony

Before we discuss, let’s start with the realization that most of us will not undergo a cyber attack by (allegedly) a small but powerful Asian country. However, the threats we encounter can be equally as destructive. The following are a few things to help prepare for your next confrontation.

Recognize Threats

Workplace violence is typically precipitated by a warning. These warnings can be as apparent as, “I’ll get you” or have the subtlety of a menacing face expression. If you know your teammates and business partners, then you have an understanding of their emotional state and what upsets them. If the threat is external, as in Sony’s case, determine what motivates them, available resources, what they are trying to accomplish, and what might appease them.

Assess the Risk

This can be difficult when you don’t personally know your aggressor. Instead of trying to get in their head, consider your various courses of action and the consequences of each. Ask yourself, “What is the risk to saying ‘no’? Are you willing to take this risk? If you give in, are you willing to operate under this newly established precedent? Is there a possible compromise?


While no one could have predicted these threats of violence from a comedic movie, most of us can prepare for the situations that are more likely to spur retaliation. Layoffs, disciplinary actions, and demotions are obvious scenarios. Before taking any of these actions, you need processes in place to ensure the safety of your team.

Other circumstances are less foreseeable. In these cases, immediately get your trusted advisors and experts together to develop the plan. How will you respond to the threat? Who will deliver the message? If you are saying “no,” how will you minimize the potential damage and keep staff out of harm’s way?

When faced with a threat, we must take each one seriously. You never know which are baseless and which have real merit. If you choose to deny the demands of your oppressor, get a game plan together to mitigate their adverse actions. If you give in, be able to explain the reasons in a way that won’t make you appear weak or scared. And, as a tip, maybe reconsider making your movie about killing Kim Jong-un.

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