“It’s been a busy week, as you can imagine,” Bill Wohl tells Campaign Asia-Pacific from Singapore less than a week into the 'WannaCry' ransomware crisis.
Wohl is the chief communications officer for Commvault, a Nasdaq-listed global data protection firm based in New Jersey with 2700 employees worldwide.
When the so-called ‘WannaCry’ cyberattacks hit on Friday, May 12, Wohl knew his communication and marketing skills would be put to the test post haste.
“It was pretty clear as the news rolled out that it was going to have cross-industry, cross-geography, enterprises and small companies impact and it became a big story very quickly,” he says.
In a matter of hours, the attack had spread to over 100 countries, affecting up to 200,000 organizations by encrypting their data and demanding payment.
“A whole lot of companies basically had a very difficult wake-up call,” says Wohl. “In conference rooms all around the world CEOs and boards of directors were turning to CIOs and saying ‘are we protected? Do we have a plan? How do we make sure we don’t end up being one of these 200,000 companies?’”
For Commvault, which helps companies back up, constantly update and recover their data through cloud-based services, such crises can become real marketing opportunities—but need to be quickly and deftly handled.
“We certainly had to be careful in making sure we did not try to position Commvault as gleefully taking advantage of a difficult situation in the marketplace,” Wohl says.
Glee? No. But the attack would be another clear wakeup call for companies to step up their data-protection levels.
Commvault’s marketing marching orders were to position its brand as a source of media expertise on protecting against ransomware while helping companies determine how prepared they were.
Already by noon (US time) on the day of the first attacks, Wohl’s team was “aggressively” reaching out to media to position its experts in the first wave of stories about the attacks. Commvault experts were quoted across trade and business publications like TechTarget, SiliconRepublic and Computerworld and in wider publications like The Atlantic as new doors opened to them that might normally be shut.
While responding to media, Commvault’s marketing arm was already gathering together all the considerable content the company had on ransomware and working through the weekend to move it to the front of the brand's web pages.
Within days, the Commvault website, the front door to its store, as Wohl says, was refocused on ransomware protection with links to the latest research on protecting and recovering from such attacks.
The third component of the company's response plan was to look ahead to what information companies might want in the later days of the crisis as the week unfolded. So Commvault started to shape an agenda of webinars for potential customers to catch either live or on-demand through their website.
The key, Wohl says, was not to simply featuring their own spokespeople, but also third-party experts on ransomware defense and customers facing ransomware threats or those who protected themselves.
“So it’s not just us presenting our own marketing materials,” Wohl emphasises. “Solid advice, quickly presented.”
All of the efforts appear to be paying off in what Wohl characterizes as a “strong early win week for us” but he admits it’s too early to tell how much it will translate in business or sales terms.
Coping with crises
If Wohl’s method and approach in navigating through tumult appears calm and collected, it may be because he’s had practice: 30-plus years in communications working for companies ranging from firearms makers to technology firms. He’s also set up his own consultancy advising on crisis management.
“I love a good crisis,” he says. “I don’t like the fact that companies are in crisis, that’s unfortunate. But when it does happen it puts the focus on the strategic role played by communications. That’s the period on which we’re counted on the most.”
Wohl really had to roll up his sleeves back in 2011, when he joined Hewlett-Packard as chief communications officer during the tumultuous tenure of CEO Leo Apotheker.
Margins were falling, the stock was tanking and hard decisions had to be made around discontinuing products like tablets and mobile phones in favour of software services. HP was roundly criticized for paying what Oracle CEO Larry Ellison called an “absurdly high” price for British data software firm Autonomy.
“When I got to HP, the company had been in crisis for so long that they had literally just sort of dug a hole and put the cover over top and hoped that it would all go away,” Wohl says.
His approach was to empower a group of people to tackle the crisis head on, while also assigning others to spread the message about HP’s culture for the many loyal customers who still delighted in buying its products and needed a positive message.
That year he was named 21st among PR Week’s Top 50 communications executives to watch. Much time was spent trying to build relationships with key reporters to give them context around difficult corporate news and decision-making.
Wohl says he’s a big believer in building your advocacy network well in advance of any crisis generally.
“You can’t build strategic relationships with the press, with industry influencers and even with those inside the business in the moment of crisis,” he says. “You don’t have the time for it. And frankly there’s no credibility for you to do that.”
At HP, there simply were too many crises to fix and Wohl’s time there lasted less than a year. But he says it provided many valuable lessons about focus and gathering the right experts around you.
“No matter what kind of situation a company is in, whether it’s hyper-growth or considerable crisis, the requirement for communications is to bring a consistency of message into the business and to never lose sight of the fact that the company has to deliver for its shareholders or owners.”
That brings Wohl to his current challenge for Commvault, which not only wants to be known as the data protection and recovery company, but increasingly as a data management company that can help companies access and make sense of all their data at all times by serving it up to analytics engines in the right format.
CMOs, CFOs and CEOs may all use different forms of software and data and CIOs can feel like they’re losing control of all enterprise data, Wohl says, which is where Commvault can come in to help manage it all.
One might sense a similar messaging here: crisis averted.