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Crisis management strategies: Platte River Networks offers some advice

The MSP involved in the Clinton email server controversy shared insight into how it survived the highly publicized investigation and resulting negative attention.

LAS VEGAS -- Of all the things an MSP could lose sleep over, facing a crisis like the one Platte River Networks did is probably among the most nightmarish to consider.

At the Channel Partners Conference & Expo 2017, held this week in Las Vegas, the managed services provider (MSP) involved in the controversy surrounding Hillary Clinton's private email server, spoke out about crisis management strategies it learned from the experience. According to Platte River Networks, the lessons gained from crisis could be applicable to any scenario where a channel firm's reputation is threatened.

"I would say that we thought we were prepared, but we were actually not," said David DeCamillis, vice president of sales and marketing at Platte River Networks based in Denver.

DeCamillis acknowledged the slim odds of an MSP facing a crisis of the Platte River Networks' proportions, but he said MSPs could have to deal with similar situations, such as a customer data breach that results in an investigation. "There are a lot of different kinds of crises that can occur," he said.

Crisis management strategies: Don't underestimate the need for specialists

If a crisis does occur, DeCamillis strongly recommended channel firms bring in experts for help.

In March 2015, "when it finally came out that [Hillary Clinton] was using the email server for secretary of state [activities]," Platte River Networks didn't fully realize the expertise that would be needed to cooperate with the investigation, he said. "We never expected a crisis like this to fall into our lap."

At that point, the company's name hadn't been publicly released, but it had received a letter from the Clintons' attorneys regarding a preservation order, he noted. "At that time, we should have hired the experts. We didn't. We were naïve. We thought we could use our local law firm who specializes in VAR [value-added reseller] SLAs [service-level agreements], for example."

At that time, we should have hired the experts. We didn't. We were naïve.
David DeCamillisvice president of sales and marketing, Platte River Networks

Platte River Networks eventually contracted three law firms that had experience in working with government entities, he said.

Another mistake that he noted was that Platte River Networks didn't think it needed a public relations firm to help deal with the press. "We started talking to the press ourselves. Major mistakes were made," he said.

The MSP hired a PR firm that specialized in crisis management strategies. In August 2015, when Platte River Network was publicly identified as the IT firm associated with the email server controversy and began to make headlines, the PR firm was indispensable, he said. Major news organizations soon became a constant presence at the MSP's offices and in the lives of company staff.

"Bringing in the PR firm to help manage the press was huge because what happens is false information gets released and it's printed as fact," he noted.

Dealing with attacks on company reputation, threats

The negative public exposure led Platte River Network's online reputation to tank.

Before the controversy, the MSP's Google reviews ranking was "about 4.8," DeCamillis said. The ranking then dropped "to a 2.9 in three months." He showed several examples of inflammatory and politically-charged reviews the company received.

Platte River Network's low rankings also affected its Google search rankings. "We were top five [on Google searches] pretty consistently for a very long period of time. It dropped to the third and fourth page in a lot of cases," said Greg Bond, founder of Faster.Press, which worked with Platte River Networks to bounce back from the negative publicity.

"It took months [and] dozens of phone calls" to finally get Google to remove some of the inflammatory reviews, DeCamillis noted. But despite these efforts, "the damage was done." Platte River Networks has since seen some significant recovery on its Google rankings. However, even now the MSP competes with "false, negative stories" about the company within top search results, he said.

In addition to this, Platte River Networks dealt with a flood of hateful posts on social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, DeCamillis said. The company blocked and removed "over 300 people from our Facebook page," he added.

"This election brought out a lot of hate across the board. I mean, it was amazing," he said.

Instead of completely blocking and deleting criticism on social media, he recommended approaching some of the critical posts as a dialogue. "First, I would respond respectfully to their critique ... and then I would do a private message and try to have a civil conversation with them just to help tame them and keep them from continuing to post the negative items so we could eventually turn the tide," he said.

He also noted the company reported multiple death threats and dealt with doxing, where employees' personal information, including home addresses, was maliciously exposed online.

Platte River Networks, in response to the negative attention, adopted new security measures -- some of which, in retrospect, should have been already in place. These measures included "beefing up" cybersecurity and increasing physical security at the offices.

Understand the costs of an investigation

"When the government calls, of course you have got to answer," DeCamillis said.

The government will demand a lot from a company that is involved in an investigation, even if the company is not considered guilty of a crime, he said. "Once you get sucked in, you are stuck."

That's what happened to Platte River Networks when it became involved in the government investigation. Attorneys helped in this process, but were expensive. "Unfortunately, the types of attorneys that you need charge $500 to $700 an hour," he noted.

Platte River Networks also spent money on airfare and hotels for short-notice summons to Washington, D.C. These trips also pulled its resources out of the field to go and speak to congress, resulting in more financial loss. Additionally, the MSP had to disclose and present information multiple times and to multiple government entities.

"Finally, it came to a point where we were going to go out of business because we couldn't afford the attorneys' fees anymore," he said, adding that lead generation had dropped substantially. "We were growing at about a 20% growth rate, and when this hit, for the next 14 months we were at 0%. We also lost some customers."

Platte River Networks then decided to plead the fifth. While pleading the fifth caused a field day for the media, it helped reduce its involvement in the investigation, DeCamillis said.

The negative attention on the MSP began to die down after the contentious 2016 election. Since then, DeCamillis said the company has been recuperating from its losses and is seeing strong growth again.

"We came out of it on the other side. We were really lucky. I can imagine that a lot of company's could not have been able to survive something like this," he said.

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What should go into an MSP's crisis management plan?
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The results in this case have more to do with the Obama administration's handling of the investigation than the quality of the MSP's response.  Who ever heard of the FBI destroying evidence as part of an immunity deal except in this incident?

It is premature to say this MSP has made it out the other side. The investigations continue.
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