Isentia’s cybersecurity response is simply not good enough

Should the response to a cybersecurity threat have been better, especially from a business in the media and communications industry? Isentia customer and Pure Public Relations' managing director, Phoebe Netto, thinks so.

Last week, media-monitoring company Isentia faced a cyber attack on its Mediaportal and Slice services. Mediaportal and Slice are used by customers to see which media are reporting on them or their clients, and the issues of interest to them.

Isentia’s handling of the cybersecurity attack on Mediaportal and Slice has come under fire from customers

Isentia entered a trading halt following the incident, which has immediately impacted the company’s net profit before tax to the tune of $7 million – $8.5 million.

As a customer of Isentia, to say I am disappointed and frustrated is an understatement.

As a business owner, I can’t imagine the stress and burden of leading a listed company that has experienced a cyber-attack leading to a trading halt.

And as a PR professional, I wish they had called for some advice.

Since 26 October, when we discovered the site was down, my agency alone has missed 90 pieces of media coverage, client mentions and articles of interest that would have been lost to the sands of time had we not found them through manually monitoring the media ourselves.

Since we offer issues management, some of these missing instances have needed urgent responses. There’s no way around it: close to two weeks of inactive service is a big deal, and the impact on larger PR agencies would be even more substantial.

Ed Harrison: CEO of Isentia

The MPs and government departments that we work with have been hugely disrupted by this, and for some at really critical campaign moments. Agencies that offer issues management, like mine, have sensitive terms and names that we monitor, and confidentiality is essential, making a ransomware attack concerning.

Sufficient preventative measures were not in place, details have been few, and a solution has been slow. In short, the response has been poor.

Here is the timeline of our experience:

26 October – We couldn’t access the site, we queried it after trying to log in all morning and received a standard response that gave the impression this would be a very short interruption.

27 October – Two emails from ISentia: one advising of “a partial IT system outage as a result of a cybersecurity incident”, and another confirming a “ransomware incident”.

3 November – An update email with no new information except a link to a new FAQ page, which didn’t have much information there at that time.

Morning of 6 November – I emailed a request for a refund and explain the impact on my business.

Afternoon of 6 November – We receive an email to say we can log in again, but there is only limited functionality and minimal search results, and the FAQ page has some more updates on it. I still had many unanswered questions.

At the time of writing this, I still have no indication of when full functionality will be back or if my data or search information have been compromised, and there was no proactive suggestion on how to rectify the situation.

I received a refund on the same day I asked for one, which I’m pleased about. But when users expect search results on the hour, this frequency of communication and level of information has been incredibly underwhelming.

In 2020, when so many people have RSI from hitting refresh on US election coverage, three to seven days between email updates is a recipe for mass customer desertion.

Ask any crisis comms specialist, and they’ll confirm that when an issue hits, silence is not acceptable. And today, that goes for days of silence in between updates – those who are impacted will fill the void with their frustrations. I certainly did – in the absence of any substantive information and with nowhere to direct my concerns, I took my frustration and questions to others. A quick look at Twitter shows I was not the only one.

When people feel powerless in times of uncertainty, anxiety grows. Isentia has left room for many unanswered questions and unaddressed concerns. Even though there are many questions that Isentia themselves don’t have the answers to, giving frequent updates to manage expectations and share possible outcomes has an empowering and stabilising effect that creates connections and reduces panic – even if the news isn’t all positive.

Sure, listed companies need to manage what information is shared publicly, but they can still communicate frequently with customers. If we aren’t able to get what we have paid for, we at least expect the company to be proactive with what is in its control.

What will be offered to us as a temporary solution? Where can we take our concerns? Do you plan on offering a credit or refund, or other ways to receive media coverage, or is it up to the customer to work that out? When can we expect the next update? Should we be worried about the security impact? What is stopping this from happening again?

As I write this on Friday afternoon, 6 November, there are still too many questions that have not been answered or even acknowledged. And while I have been offered some sort of refund, I really would just like the service to be functioning again.

The behind-the-scenes of this incident would make for a gripping Aaron Sorkin film – there’s cybercriminals, government departments, hundreds of angry customers, Isentia’s opportunistic competitors on Twitter, unlucky investors, and a frantic business losing money. But, from a customer’s perspective, it’s just bad service.

Phoebe Netto is the managing director of Pure Public Relations


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