How Sony Could Have Won a No-Win Situation

Sony's reaction to the cyber attack against "The Interview" caused far more harm than anything the hackers leaked.

learn more about Steve Tobak

By Steve Tobak

Ken Wolter |

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Life is full of no-win situations. Executives and business leaders face them all the time. And they don't get to just shrug their shoulders and make excuses about being caught between a rock and a hard place. They have a responsibility to make the right call and deal with the consequences. And those can be the hardest decisions to make.

The only saving grace is that dealing with no-win situations can reveal what you're really made of and help build character. Besides, they only appear to be lose-lose on the surface. If you dig deep enough, fully understand the situation, and are completely honest with yourself, you'll usually figure out what the right thing to do is.

Case in point: Sony's initial decision to pull the plug on the Christmas Day release of "The Interview," a Seth Rogen action-comedy about a CIA plot to assassinate North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, after a massive cyber attack and terroristic threat by the hackers.

Some blasted Sony for giving up its right to free expression and giving in to the hacker's demands, even though Homeland Security said there was no credible physical threat. Sony Pictures CEO Michael Lynton claimed he had no choice, that it was the cinema owners' decision not to screen the movie that forced his hand.

Others said Sony was caught between a rock and a hard place. That it was a no-win situation because, had it released the film and the cyber criminals made good on their threat, Sony would have been sued for negligence and skewered by the media for putting profits ahead of customer safety.

Related: How (and Why) to Pivot From Services to Products

Meanwhile, Sony then flip-flopped, agreeing to allow some theaters to show the movie on Christmas Day while seeking additional channels to distribute the film. This would seem to contradict its posture of just a few of days ago.

Now let me explain what's really going on here and how Sony's response to a perceived no-win situation was the wrong decision that only made matters worse.

Months ago, Sony Corp. CEO Kazuo Hirai (Lynton's boss) requested that Kim's gruesome death scene be toned down and entirely deleted from international releases. It's unheard of for the chief executive of a $75 billion company to micromanage a $44 million spoof.

So early on, Sony Corp. seemed to have a risk-averse and/or politically correct posture toward the film.

Then came the cyber attack aimed at stopping the film's release, including the leak of several versions of unreleased films, confidential information, and embarrassing emails. At that point, I'd be willing to bet that Sony executives – especially the ones involved in those compromising email exchanges – had wished they'd never made the movie.

Related: How to Hire the Best Talent and Avoid the Most Common Pitfalls

Finally came the threat of 9-11-style violence if the movie was released as planned. At that point, it was Sony's decision to allow theater operators to opt-out of screening the film. And when they of course took Sony up on their offer, that created the perfect opportunity to cancel the release of the troublesome movie.

Clearly, Sony's decision was all about risk aversion. And its response to the backlash from those who rightly felt that kowtowing to cyber bullies hurt the movie industry and American interests was that it had no choice. That it was caught between a rock and a hard place. That it was a no-win situation.

But had Sony stuck to its guns and released the movie as planned, it would have made a strong statement about standing up for freedom instead of giving in to fear and threats as Ben Franklin once wrote, "Those who would give up essential liberty, to purchase a little temporary safety, deserve neither liberty nor safety."

Of course, the company still would have had to alert police, theater owners, and moviegoers to the risk. And the movie would almost certainly have lost money. But that would have been the right decision to make and its consequences would have been justified. That's hardly a no-win situation.

Instead Sony is backpeddling all over the place, reactively whipsawing between the hacker's threats and the public's backlash. It's a PR nightmare that makes the company look weak and diminishes its brand far more than anything the hackers leaked. And the movie will likely lose money anyway. Now that's a no-win situation.

Related: Do You Believe in Magic? Don't.

Steve Tobak

Author of Real Leaders Don't Follow

Steve Tobak is a management consultant, columnist, former senior executive, and author of Real Leaders Don’t Follow: Being Extraordinary in the Age of the Entrepreneur (Entrepreneur Press, October 2015). Tobak runs Silicon Valley-based Invisor Consulting and blogs at, where you can contact him and learn more.

Related Topics

Editor's Pick

The Dark Side of Pay Transparency — And What to Do If You Find Out You're Being Underpaid
Thinking of a Career Change? Here Are 4 Steps You Can Take to Get There.
A Founder Who Bootstrapped Her Jewelry Business With Just $1,000 Now Sees 7-Figure Revenue Because She Knew Something About Her Customers Nobody Else Did
Everything You Need to Know About Franchise Law
Business News

Amazon Is Starting to Let Customers Know What Products Are Returned Often

The e-commerce giant has begun flagging certain items that were frequently sent back.

Employee Experience & Recruiting

5 Types of Toxic Employees and How to Deal With Them (Infographic)

When it comes to the troublemakers in your organization you have two choices: cut them out or rein them in. Here's how to do the latter, like a boss.


Get Customers to Fall in Love With Your Company With These 3 Disney Marketing Tactics

For startups struggling to capture the attention of potential customers, connect with them and build credibility in today's fast-paced business world, Disney's marketing can teach you a few valuable lessons. Ready to join this rollercoaster ride?

Making a Change

3 Simple Methods To Achieve Work-Life Balance And Combat Decision Fatigue

How to combat the ever-growing problem of decision fatigue and work-life balance.