VA data theft sparks marketing blitz

Effective PR often is tied to what happens in the world

When news broke last month that a laptop PC containing the personal information of more than 26 million veterans had been stolen from a Department of Veterans Affairs employee’s home, public relations e-mail began flying almost immediately.

“You want to use the news event to position your solution as close in proximity as possible to the problem to make that linkage in the buyer’s mind,” said Aaron Cohen, account supervisor and director of media relations at Imre Communications. “You want to do it when the event is still top of mind.”

Making that linkage, however, is only one small piece of a larger marketing strategy, he said.

“You’re not going to sway a buyer, especially a savvy government procurement officer, with just this one instance, this one contact,” Cohen said. “You’re going to need to continue touching them at different points of their sales cycle.”

Media consultant Alex Zavistovich said the client company, not the public relations representative, must make the final decision about whether to participate in such event-driven efforts. It can seem opportunistic, even ghoulish when the news event involves deaths, and not all company leaders want to participate.

“The kind of company that does want to be involved in that is the kind of company that understands the best public relations is when you’re providing information that helps the audience,” Zavistovich said. “You don’t want to just wrap yourself in your own flag.”

Cohen said companies should approach such marketing opportunities with sensitivity. “There are instances where you might want to just back away,” he said. “The mine tragedy in West Virginia a couple of months ago is an example of a situation you might want to stay away from.”

John Jordan, president of Principor Communications, is one public relations professional who sent out e-mail messages in the wake of the VA data theft. He was representing his client company, Fidelis Security Systems, as a provider of technology that can prevent the unauthorized transfer of personal data.

Tying messages to events is one way to keep clients’ names in front of potential customers, even when the clients themselves aren’t generating news, Jordan said. “These kinds of pitches play a role in almost any kind of PR effort.” But it is important to make the decision and move quickly, he added. “There tends to be a pretty small window in which you can insert yourself into these stories. You have to have something pretty tightly tied to it.”

Mark Amtower, a consultant specializing in marketing and advertising geared toward federal buyers, said offers of expertise are only credible if the person being offered has a pedigree. Companies that try to draw attention to themselves when they really don’t have a track record are not going to benefit in terms of media exposure or sales.

Making the fast pitchWhen disasters strike or other major news events happen, marketing professionals try to associate firms they represent with solutions to a problem caused by the event. The connection appears in e-mail messages to reporters, in sales meetings with agencies and in other ways that may result in the client firm getting a publicity boost or even new sales.

Here are the subject lines of some e-mail messages that reporters received after the May theft of veterans’ personal information:

  • “Veterans Affairs Data Theft Could Have Been Harmless” (from WinMagic, which makes disk encryption software)
  • “VA data theft causes preventable panic” (from Trust Digital, offering an interview with the company’s chief executive officer)
  • “Data Privacy: How Safe is Your Information?” (from Princeton Softech)
  • “Survey Finds Information Insecurity Has Economic and Political Implications” (from the Cyber Security Industry Alliance)
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