Revisiting the Kryptonite Affair

By | April 25, 2006

(This post is also available as an experimental Loose Wireless podcast )

Remember the Kryptonite Affair? It was back in September 2004 when a company that sold bicycle locks crashed into the power of forums and blogs and came away battered and bleeding when it failed to respond in Internet time to complaints that some of its bicycle locks could be opened with a Bic pen. Here was my take at the time (well, not exactly at the time; I was only a couple of months late). Kryptonite became a poster boy of how not to handle adverse PR when it comes via the Internet. (A Google search for BIC Kryptonite throws up more than 51,000 hits.)

But now a reassessment of Kryptonite’s response has begun with a post by Dave Taylor, a writer, speaker, entrepreneur and blogger. Dave interviews Kryptonite PR chief Donna Tocci, and concludes that Kryptonite’s response was in fact measured and swift. Instead, he says, a myth has developed around the whole incident that should be laid to rest:

Always remember that ultimately the company has to meet its market, too, not vice versa. Oh, and don’t discount the effect of mythologizing along the way too: Kryptonite handled its situation with savvy and professionalism and has recovered its position, but the “myth” of bic pens and the crushing blow of blogging has grown far beyond the reality of the situation.

An interesting perspective. But what myth, exactly? That BIC pens can’t open some Kryptonite bike locks? Yes, they can. Indeed, Donna was quoted by the NYT at the time as making the argument that arguing that locks made by other manufacturers shared the same vulnerabilities.

Then there’s the “myth” of Kryptonite’s allegedly slow and leaden response to the whole thing. Dave says a myth emerged that “the company wasn’t paying attention to the blogosphere and that it took weeks for it to learn that there was a problem”. Hugh MacLeod of gapingvoid at the time was merciless in his chronology, saying that there was nothing on the Kryptonite website to suggest there was a problem with the bike locks until at least Day Seven. This is not exactly true. Kryptonite did post something within a few days on its website offering free replacements to any owner “concerned about the security of this lock” while not acknowledging there were problems with the locks, or indeed, why customers might, or should, be concerned.

But is Dave right in saying that the myth wasn’t true, since “Donna and her team were aware of the problem from the very first day”? Well, a couple of things here. Just because Kryptonite was aware of the problem from the first day doesn’t lessen the problem. Even Donna herself acknowledges that she should have posted “a note on our website about us working on the issue a day or two earlier.” Indeed, one could argue that if they did know about the problem from day one, they should have put something on their website to reassure customers, or given them some hint that there was a problem, before they started doing anything else.

Indeed, what is surprising about the whole episode was not the discovery that some bike locks could be opened with a plastic biro, but that information along these lines had been available for 12 years in the form of an article in a biking magazine. Obscure, maybe, but if the argument is that the blogosphere is just too big too monitor effectively, what about bicycle magazines? How many are there in the world? Maybe 200? 1,000? Is that too many to monitor, over a 12-year period?

The bigger point is that the issue spread like wildfire when it resurfaced 12 years on because of the Internet. That’s what the Internet does, or can do. Kryptonite’s failure was letting down its customers who looked to its website for guidance. So when Donna says “we know that the majority of the people who participated in our lock exchange program heard about it from traditional media sources”, instead of this being evidence to back up Dave’s skepticism that “a lot of blog pundits are fond of pointing to this situation as an example of why companies need to keep track of the so-called blogosphere”, I’d say it highlights the opposite.

If you visit a company website a day or two after damaging news has broken about that company’s products, and there’s no sign of any acknowledgement on the website about this, why would you then keep revisiting it until there is something there? It may not be fair, and it may not fit your schedule, but the Internet requires an in-time response, even if it’s just “we are looking into reports that there’s a problem with some of our products. If you’re concerned, drop us an email and we’ll get back to you.” It’s not rocket science.

So, Dave is right in that Kryptonite will forever be associated with PR problems in the Internet age, and it’s good to get a bit of balance in there. But perhaps the myth he is pointing to is that Kryptonite as a company and brand were permanently hobbled by the episode. Donna — who still has her job — agrees, saying the brand is not “as damaged as the blogosphere would have you believe”. She gives no sales figures. But she also acknowledges that the tubular lock — the source of all the problem — no longer exists as a Kryptonite lock. Indeed, more than 380,000 of them have been replaced. She’s a good PR person: she portrays this as a positive, a sign of the company’s logistical skill. But how could one argue the demise of one’s main product, and the expensive replacement of hundreds of thousands of units, as a good thing? I’d say that it’s a pretty fitting testament to the power of the Internet. On balance, I’d say, the “myth” stands.

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