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Ashley Madison hack: Can the company recover?

The general rule in crisis communications is to always get in front of the negative news story. You will have a better chance of shaping the narrative if you are the person releasing the bad information than if you are the person responding to the question.

Call it coincidence, karma or irony, but Ashley Madison is now facing a public crisis that could potentially destroy its consumer trust, even though it built a major brand around circumventing trust.

Ashley Madison website
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So what should Ashley Madison do to restore trust among its users? How does it rebuild its brand as the most famous "discreet" name in infidelity and married dating?

1. Hold a press conference

Not every crisis-communication situation requires a press conference but when you're a global brand like Ashley Madison, you want to get all of the bad news out at once. Yes — the Band-Aid will hurt when it is being torn off, but isn't it better a week later when the scab starts to heal? The CEO of Ashley Madison needs to get in front of this story and answer every question as it comes.

And, hold a real one — not a staged one like Hillary Clinton organized when news of her email server first surfaced back in March. Don't invite only friendly news reporters because that act will only motivate other reporters to work harder to get bigger scoops on your business. If your press conference is organized well and the questions are addressed, your story will likely go away within a few news cycles.

2. Stick with the positive

Donald Trump is the master of sticking with the positive — no matter how negative the question. Reporters from the left and right have asked him some strongly-worded negative questions but if you listen closely, he always responds with how great he is. The CEO of Ashley Madison needs to apply this approach with every negative question. For example: You built a brand on discretion yet hackers were able to get access to your private information that should have been secured. How did this happen?

CEO's response: We are the biggest brand on the web when it comes to people searching for affairs. Our users want adventure; they want to remember what it was like to be a teenager. Hackers don't want to attack those little dating sites with no users. They want to hack the biggest names in the business. That's why Citibank, Chase and Ashley Madison are all targets.

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3. Don't apologize to users

An apology is not a universal strategy when it comes to managing negative news. Sometimes, you need to apologize, but when extenuating circumstances are at play, you may want to avoid an apology because it implies guilt. Is Ashley Madison guilty for this breach? I'm sure that depends on who you talk to. Instead of apologizing to users, the CEO of Ashley Madison needs to make sure its users learn to trust the company again. Focus the message on explaining why there is a new cyber security mechanism in place that will prevent this from happening again. If possible, make sure your security consultants are at the press conference to answer technology questions from reporters. More important, make sure your cyber security team is prepped for these interrogations.

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Position yourself as the industry leader

The cliché "all publicity is good publicity" was crafted by a publicist who didn't understand crisis communications. Negative news is not always good, but in this situation, Ashley Madison can't avoid it, so it needs to exploit it. The CEO needs to continually push and promote Ashley Madison as the industry leader for people looking for fun. And remain visionary. Reinforce in your message why your company will survive this short-term challenge.

And what about all of those users who are worried their name or business may become tarnished by the potential exposure of these records?

This is why PR generally is not a science but an art. In this situation, the customers do not want to get in front of the negative news. If your name does get leaked, that's a whole 'nother crisis strategy that probably should begin with a marriage counselor — not a publicist.

Commentary by Mark Macias, head of Macias PR, a global public-relations firm, that has run media and branding campaigns for politicians, tech start-ups, financial firms, nonprofits and companies. He's also author of the book, "Beat the Press: Your Guide to Managing the Media." Follow him on Twitter @markmacias.