Bank of America's Digital Opportunity: In the WikiLeaks Era, Forewarned Means Forearmed

No, that's not a typo in the headline. The Sword of Damocles known as WikiLeaks does indeed represent a salient and, in some ways, unprecedented opportunity for the great financial institution to assume control of its story on Julian Assange's home turf--the Internet.

While it's impossible to know precisely what prophylactic measures are currently underway to protect Bank of America's reputation, we do know that its Enterprise Risk Management (ERM) team has launched a comprehensive internal investigation. Such forensic measures are certainly necessary but they also underscore a problem for WikiLeaks targets--that they're consistently forced into defensive positions.

They're chasing facts with an eye to reactively providing explanations. As prudent as this may be, it only gets Bank of America and future targets halfway home. They need to take a page from the plaintiff law firms, NGOs, and regulators who use digital communications to control the story. What we read first and most often, we believe. As such, now is the time to go on the offensive.

BoA--thanks to the advance warning that Assange has publicly provided in the form of a threat--has an extraordinary opportunity to do just that. After all, it's been more than a year since Assange told IDG News Service that he'd obtained the equivalent of 200,000 pages of text from a BoA executive's hard drive. On the one hand, that time element, so indeterminate, is unsettling, as BoA simply doesn't know if or when the adversary will strike.

On the other hand, until Assange actually does launch an attack, BoA is still relatively at peace, and can use that peacetime to take control of the narrative before Mr. Assange defines the bank as what he's already dubbed "an ecosystem of corruption."

With an online offensive directed not against WikiLeaks, but waged instead on behalf of the bank itself, BoA can stop following this story and start leading it. A proactive blitz of positive BoA-related information would operate in synch with the ERM team's assiduous internal auditing. Even as that team scours the organization for its liabilities, the bank can simultaneously inundate the world with its assets.

Substantively, those assets would establish leadership positions on issues of transparency with investors and consumers; protecting clients' proprietary data; fairness in lending; and, perhaps most important, superior mortgage reviews that draw a line in the sand between BoA and the dangerous practices employed by the old Countrywide and others.

Such messages would resound in tandem with BoA's recent C-Suite leadership changes to make Assange's revelations increasingly irrelevant. WikiLeaks, not BoA, would then need to swim upstream against established perceptions that the bank recognized its problems long ago and acted responsibly to resolve them. Amid such a reversal of the narrative, the reassuring message that "that was then, this is now" becomes all the more credible.

Of course, BoA must still confront the fact that WikiLeaks' possesses a powerful home-field advantage in the digital space. As of this writing, a Google search for "Bank of America and WikiLeaks" returns not one Bank of America-controlled site on the all-important first page of search results. That's a distinct liability in a confrontation that boils down to the same essential challenge that drives all competition on the Internet: the race to be found. What is found first on the Internet is perceived as fact. It influences journalists, analysts, Capitol Hill staffers, and regulators. The vehicle is the most direct route to history, and it is simply too powerful to allow adversaries control.

BoA's opportunity is to overwhelm all adversaries in every online venue where reporters, bloggers, investors, and regulators turn for information. The bank must establish a dominant position in terms of both Search Engine Optimization (SEO) (content searches) and Search Engine Marketing (SEM) (paid searches). In this context, it is essential to purchase top-ranked sponsored links for target keywords that take visitors to BoA's side of the story.

Those SEO and SEM campaigns must support all BoA Web properties, including social media profiles and even a YouTube channel where the bank's CEO Brian Moynihan or other spokespersons share the direct, personal messages that resonate powerfully with target audiences. Commentary by BoA allies in the digital media is likewise imperative as disinterested third-party validation.

Without the strategic head start such initiatives provide, there can be no chance of catching up to Assange if and when he attacks. On the other hand, with enough early online dominance, even a voluminous WikiLeaks disclosure can seem anticlimactic.

If Assange's advance warning to BoA makes this story unique, it is its relevance as a business opportunity that makes it important. The CEOs and risk managers of our world should all operate under the assumption that they too are on the WikiLeaks hit list, and that every moment of peacetime offers precious preparation for the inevitable warfare ahead.

Richard S. Levick, Esq., is the president and chief executive officer of Levick Strategic Communications, a crisis and public affairs communications firm. He is the co-author of The Communicators: Leadership in the Age of Crisis and Stop the Presses: The Crisis & Litigation PR Desk Reference, and writes for Bulletproofblog. Mr. Levick is on the prestigious list of "The 100 Most Influential People in the Boardroom," which is compiled by the NACD and Directorship Magazine. Reach him at rlevick@levick.com.

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