When Nokia Siemens was accused of aiding Iran's web spying its PR fight back was a model of its kind

Sometimes, a reputation crisis can arrive out of the blue, escalate rapidly through the power of the web to spread the news, and threaten to do major damage if not handled properly. The company involved may not even have thought it was doing anything wrong; it may just have been in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Such was the case with Nokia Siemens, when thousands of people took to the streets of Iran in June to protest against what they saw as a rigged election. In the days that followed, as the Iranian authorities flooded the streets with riot police, expelled foreign journalists, arrested scores of dissidents and reduced internet speed to a crawl, the mobile phone became a vital tool for protesters – not just to communicate information, but as the most reliable method of getting pictures and information to the outside world.

It was at this point that a story which had appeared in the Washington Times on 13 April about how a joint venture between Nokia and Siemens had sold mobile networking technology to Iran in 2008, was revived on 22 June by the Wall Street Journal under the headline ‘Iran’s web spying aided by Western technology’. The story heavily implied that the monitoring capability included in the sale was being used for ‘deep packet inspection’ – allowing the Iranian authorities to inspect the content of messages sent over the network, and hence track down and arrest protesters.

The Iranian crisis was already figuring prominently on the social networking platforms Facebook and Twitter, especially as Twitter was providing one of the very few ways for Iranians to send and receive up-to-the-minute information. The revelation that Nokia was possibly implicated in the police brutality being shown all over You Tube, had almost immediate effect. By 23 June, Wired was reporting that there were already calls for a consumer boycott, and the inevitable online petitions and comments followed. By 14 July, The Guardian was reporting that demand for Nokia handsets inside Iran had fallen by half. Meanwhile, Nokia’s ‘Connecting people’ slogan had fallen prey to numerous scathing redesigns on the web. More seriously, the Washington Times reported on 17 July that a multimillion dollar contract with Siemens to build rail cars for Los Angeles County could be at risk over the Iranian affair.

The fight back by Nokia Siemens started as soon as the Wall Street Journal article appeared, however, and as an exercise in conducting a web-based damage limitation exercise, is a model of its kind.

First, there was a human being at the heart of the campaign, rather than an anonymous spokesman.

Ben Roome, head of media relations, Nokia Siemens networks, bore the brunt of the hundreds of comments. He was active on Twitter, Facebook, and both the Nokia Siemens website and blog, and worked actively to respond to blocks of comments over a period of about a fortnight.

Second, the campaign chose three direct and simple messages:

1) There were inaccurate implications in the original story, and the monitoring facility sold to Iran was unable to conduct deep packet inspection. Only voice calls were accessible.

2) The facility for lawful intercept was a government requirement for use in fighting crime or terrorism. This facility was not confined to Iran, but was a requirement of many, if not most, western governments.

3) It was better for millions of Iranians to be connected than for Nokia Siemens to refuse to do business with the country.

All three of these points were made clear in a press release on 22 June – the same day as the original story. They were repeated and emphasised in response to comments flowing to the Nokia Siemens website and elsewhere on the web:

‘I will aim to deal with the main accusation that even our presence in Iran is wrong.

‘Mobile networks in Iran, and the subsequent widespread adoption of mobile phones, have allowed Iranians to communicate what they are seeing and hearing with the outside world. The proof of this is in the widespread awareness of the current situation …

‘… So given this lawful intercept is mandatory, the question we have to ask is: Would people in Iran be better off without access to telecommunications at all?

‘We did have a choice as to whether we bring the Iranian people this connectivity, in the knowledge that telecoms networks have the ability to monitor voice calls as they do all over the world, and believe there is a net benefit to the people of Iran.’

In contrast to the cynicism that customarily greets large brands on the web, the openness of the response, and the fact that it honestly addressed the ethical, as opposed to merely commercial, dilemma, drew Nokia Siemens some praise. ‘I think we might have hopped on the bandwagon a little prematurely’ was one rueful comment on a ‘Boycott Nokia Siemens’ Facebook group.

Indeed, by 17 July, the First Post news website reported that ‘… In a rare example of a corporate giant being backed by ordinary people, a wave of IT experts and bloggers have come to Nokia’s defence and similarly debunked the WSJ report.’

Not every corporation suddenly caught up in a media scandal may find the defence so easy. But the lessons are clear. Be quick. Use every platform you can, and get the message onto the social networking sites as well as your own outlets. Let the comments flow and have a human being ready to respond to them as personally, openly and as often as possible. Keep the message clear and simple, and if there are ethical or environmental arguments, address them.

And there is room for subtlety. Rather than accusing the Wall Street Journal for its biased newswriting, Roome merely commented: ‘Unfortunately, I was unable to clarify for the Wall Street Journal the limited scope of the lawful intercept capability …’ Everyone will have known what he meant. n

Andrew Leslie is deputy editor of StrategicRisk