From ass-licking to ass-kicking: Why the current Sony Pictures hack reveals a serious media management crisis


A gigantic hack of Sony Pictures Entertainment emails is revealing an almost unbelievable amount of sensitive insider information. If you’re digging through the bunch of embarrassing salary data, a long list of workplace complaints and many devastating emails in which studio executives did some serious name-calling against celebrities, you might find yourself wondering how one of the most important “dream factories” could have become such an intransparent, cut-off-from-the-outside-world-organization in the first place.

The back story of this case is as entertaining as can be: The apparent theory says the hack is a North Korean revenge act by a group called “Guardians of Peace” against the studio for including Kim Jong Un’s assassination in the upcoming satire movie “The Interview” starring Seth Rogen and James Franco.


Media reports even refer to an alternation of the gory finale due to the political backfire, toning down the extent in which Un’s head would explode and set aflame. The movie carries a 45 % score on Rotten Tomatoes right now (in other words: it may not be the kind of quality movie you want to risk an international crisis for).

Mass media reports naturally concentrate on the Sony case, it’s all over the news right now. We can amuse ourselves by reading email excerpts, which show us an ugly side of the glamorous movie business, serious name-calling included, no matter against whom – celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio or Angelina Jolie, who work for the studio or President Barack Obama himself. It’s a constant shift from ass-licking to ass-kicking, the latter always off record. You may also get a look into the script of the new James Bond movie, soon to be shot in parts in Austria starring Christoph Waltz.

Although I find it highly unethical and problematic to quote and spread illegaly obtained insider information in mass media reports, I find it even more problematic to dismiss the social relevance of the Sony hack in general. While other illegaly obtained material (e.g. the Snowden files) at least had led to a wide discussion about data security and political power, the Sony hack simply got filed under the term “hilarious”.

But the Sony case is more than just a showcase of one major media company’s questionable behaviour. It’s not just about losing reputation or losing a lot of money. It’s revealing a serious media management crisis, which had the possibility to spread in the last couple of years in an environment in which media conglomerates became more and more powerful and (as a result) more and more intransparent to those outside. While the the key philosophy in our BA program “International Media Management” is teaching us about the influence of culture and society on management decisions, which means understanding economies as multiperspective constructions and considering people, sustainable approaches and communication as key factors for long-lasting success, media corporations ironically were always able to hide from the spotlight and become like fortresses of secrecy. You’ll find a huge amount of bestsellers on the market telling you about how Hollywood “works”, mostly because it operates solely behind closed doors. This is part of its myth of course – but the recent Sony case shows the problematic side of it.

Just to name one example of many: Sony’s highest-earning executives are white and male. There is only one woman in the top management and she is earning considerably less than their male colleagues. But it’s not only executives, even actresses earn mostly much less than their male counterparts. On equal terms, this is just embarrassing for the whole media business and who knows what else we’d find if we would be able to look closer. This is not only a problem of one company, the whole industry is facing similar issues.

Media companies are different, because their products are. TV series, films, music, books, games are intangible, they are stories, memories, dreams, they start to live through their customers. A movie can mean the world to you, it can carry you through those hard times, it can plant an image in your head, an example of how to shape your own identity, even after the curtain falls down and the screen turns black. This is the power of media: movies may end, but their impact is much more worth than the price of a ticket. Those products are unique, informative, have social relevance and even more: they are entertaining.

But even if those products play a unique role in our economy, media companies are ordinary organizations and their management deals with the same issues as other businesses do. If they become too intransparent, they will become noncredible and unreliable and this will have a negative impact not only on their business but on our daily lives as well.

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