Sunlight Is The Best Disinfectant

June 18, 2007 at 4:10 pm 4 comments

Justice Louis Brandeis coined this marvelous phrase: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant” in praise of transparency and honesty in public policy. It also works in marketing, public relations, and customer service.

What’s weird to me is how few companies and organizations actually practice this in an effective manner. In this the Connected Age, I can’t fathom how a company thinks it can “manage” its way out of a crisis without stating the simple truth.

Let me give you an example.

I’m a gamer, and have been for many years. While I’ve played all kinds of games, for the past few years, I’ve been focused on so-called MMOG’s, which stands for “Massively Multiplayer Online Games”. Pioneered by games such as Ultima Online and EverQuest, these are games where thousands of people can play together at the same time in a persistent world.

The key to this post is that phrase, “persistent world”. In order to have a persistent world, one must have a server farm into which your players login to play the game. The server farm probably consists of web servers streaming the data out, some set of middleware application servers that has the actual logic for the game (all the calculations, etc.), and then a gigantic database server farm that stores all of the data.

Well, this past weekend was a special “Welcome Home” weekend for Dungeons & Dragons Online (DDO for short) — my game of choice at the moment. (As an aside, having embraced my inner geek, I’m a much happier person for it. I played D&D all through junior high school — with three other geeks who all got teased and made fun of all through junior high. Then girls got boobs, and we discovered them, as if for the first time. Nonetheless, it’s important to remember where one comes from, and if that’s the basement of Joe’s house with posters of dragons on the wall… so be it.)

Turns out, the techs at Turbine — the company that publishes DDO — either underestimated the demand, or something simply went awry. People couldn’t login, and when they could, the game ran so slowly that it was unplayable. Some of the customers got understandably irate and began asking for answers on the game forums, run by Turbine.

The company’s response was incredibly lame. It took them hours to post a warning to the game launcher — the one place where everyone is guaranteed to get information — about the problems. The two “Community Relations Specialists” who are responsible for monitoring the game forums and responding to user inquiries were, I assume, absolutely flooded. And they began bringing servers down for emergency maintenance right in the middle of the “Welcome Home” weekend.

A bigger disaster could not have happened for DDO. You see, it’s a niche game in a sector dominated by World of Warcraft usually shortened to WoW. WoW has 52.9% market share, and some 6.5 million subscribers according to, a site that tracks subscription figures. WoW has 52.9% market share in the MMOG space and is an absolute giant.

In contrast, DDO has 0.7% market share, with maybe 90,000 subscribers. As a DDO gamer, I think that number is highly generous, to say the least. And DDO has been hemorrhaging users for the past few months. Hence, these “Welcome Home” events designed to lure old customers back in.

When that event goes down in catastrophic flames, the proper response in the Connected economy should have been an all out transparency assault. Here’s my guide to handling total FUBAR situations.

Rapid Response From the Top

First, the CEO of Turbine should have posted something on the forums (1) acknowledging the problem, (2) apologizing to the customers, especially those who came back to experience “Welcome Home”, and (3) laying down a commitment to communicate to the users. He should have done this the minute he got verification that there was a problem with the hardware.

At this point, you rarely have any clue as to what’s going on. I run a major website for a Fortune 500 company; I know that in the early stages, you just have no clue what the heck is going on. The impulse is to find out more, get some answers, then craft an elegant statement that will explain all, lay out a solution, and so on and so forth. This is crazy in the Connected Age where everything moves at the speed of the Internet.

No, respond fast; incomplete, fine, but fast. Post something right now, not an hour from now, not 15 minutes from now, but NOW. All you’re doing with that is to reassure your customers that you’re on top of it. That message has to come from the senior executive to make sure your customers know that someone really cares. It doesn’t help to have your PR flack, or your “Community Relations Specialist” post the same thing. You want the Big Dog, the #1 Dude in Charge, to post that message.

All follow-up can be done by the underlings, but that initial, “Hey, I hear ya, and we’re on it” needs to come from the top. And because rapid response is the key, don’t have your Communications Department agonize over every word choice and crap. Just write the post yourself, like a real person, in a human voice, and post it up. Your customers aren’t going to care much that you mis-spelled a few words here and there, or used a colloquialism. But they are going to care that you responded. Quickly.

Constant Care and Feeding

Having put out the Rapid Response, the organization needs to get into very high gear for constant communication. And when I say constant, I mean constant. Every 10 minutes would not be out of line. Every 5 minutes would be even better.

Have one of those Community Relations Managers do nothing but update a post with time-stamps. It could look like this:

3:15 pm — No news yet; tech team still working on it.

3:30 pm — Still no news.

3:45 pm — No news to report.

4:00 pm — Still nothing.

It sounds lame, and it is to some degree. But here’s what this does for your organization. It lets your customers know that someone really gives a shit about them, about keeping them in the loop, about not hiding anything from them. You could literally post the same “No news yet” every 15 minutes for six hours, but then finally, you post:

2:45 am — We finally found the cause of the problems.

At that point, the user community does two things. One, it rejoices. Two, it rejoices with you. Your users/customers know that you were suffering all night long — and every 15 minutes, someone would take the time to type in a few words — and they know how painful that must have been.

Any anger or ill-will that built up will be really hard to maintain if they know that.

Don’t Be Coy

A corollary to the Constant Care is this: assume that your users/customers include people who are brilliant fucking geniuses. If you do find a problem, don’t try to translate it into English for the non-techies in the crowd. Just post it up straight with all the jargon and ugly details. Chances are very very good that someone in the customer base is a tech wiz and can explain it to the others — or even perhaps offer advice.

Don’t post: “We are having problems with our database servers.”

That’s craptacular PR-speak for “We have no fucking clue, and we don’t care whether you know.”

Instead, post: “We’re seeing intermittent SELECT U.right_level errors when users are attempting to connect to the SQL Server. We can’t isolate whether these are being caused by a new patch we just put in, which expands the SELECT statements, or if this is caused by timeouts at the server level. Still investigating.”

This way, even if the customer has no clue what the hell you’re talking about, he feels that you are completely and 100% open with them. That transparency is the best disinfectant for anger and frustration. If the customer feels like he is along with you for the painful ride through crisis, he’s far less likely to turn on you. Plus, if there’s some SQL Server wiz in your user base, he might make a suggestion or two that could really help your tech team out.

If you can’t talk about it because of trade secrets or patents, then just say so:

“We’re getting an error to our database that I can’t talk about because it would reveal patent-protected algorithms. But here’s the problem in a nutshell, and blah-blah-blah.”

That does the same thing: gives the appearance of total transparency.


Turbine did none of those things. Instead, it posted the “We’re experiencing difficulty” messages about three times in three days. Nothing ever was said by senior management. The damage is done.

They finally fixed the problem, and the servers are being rebooted today (Monday). But the “Welcome Home” weekend was as big a disaster as possible. Anyone who came back to see what’s changed got the worst possible experience that simply reinforces their initial decision to quit the game and unsubscribe.

Bravo! Really, great job. </sarcasm>

If this problem were limited to online games, then it might only be of interest to gamers like myself. Sadly, it is not. More on that later.


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Peggy Noonan Gets It Right Sunlight, Part Deux

4 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Sunlight, Part Deux « The Sophistry  |  June 21, 2007 at 10:14 am

    […] Part Deux June 21, 2007 Posted by TheSophist in Politics, Media, Marketing. trackback In Part One, I described the way I would handle a crisis from a public communications standpoint, and showed […]

  • 2. Wenn Vasen wackeln | CARTA  |  November 18, 2008 at 9:01 am

    […] kann (und in den USA bereits nach Kräften leistet, siehe Wahlsieg von Barack Obama): “Sonnenlicht ist das beste Desinfizierungsmittel”. Geprägt wurde der Spruch von Verfassungsrichter¬†Louis Brandeis, der damit unter anderem […]

  • 3. Sunlight Is The Best Disinfectant | Nathan Prather  |  April 20, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    […] Sunlight Is The Best Disinfectant ¬ę The Sophistry. Tags: Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment […]

  • 4. GEERT UP! GEERT DOWN! GEERT WILDERS! | Mike Stuchbery  |  February 7, 2013 at 10:11 am

    […] so quaintly put into words by associate justice of the US Supreme Court, Louis Brandeis: ‘Sunlight is the best disinfectant‘. It means that if an idea or process is bad or flawed, increased transparency will only […]


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Quote of the Moment

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It may be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end, for they do so with the approval of their own conscience." ---C.S. Lewis


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