When a leak turns your company inside out

Feature4-Strupek-image“Wow. Isn’t that the memo you helped write?”

These words are music to your ears when a mass communication you’ve helped draft resonates with an audience.

But they’re like fingernails on a chalkboard when the memo is being waved before a camera by a U.S. Congressman during a live, televised hearing.

That particular memo—which I helped draft—was never meant to be used to counter a witness’s testimony at a congressional hearing.  Just as a memo Yahoo sent to their employees about telecommunting wasn’t intended to start a global discussion about interconnectivity, productivity, and the pros and cons of working in a virtual environment. And neither of them was meant to be shared with anyone beyond the employees who received them.

But when they were, the communications took on entirely different meanings.

Companies have always faced the possibility of leaks, but the technology to capture communications and the variety of platforms on which to share them have tremendously increased the likelihood that inside information gets out. The potential audience of any message is no longer limited to readers of a particular newspaper or blog; the audience now is every single person on the planet with Internet access.

Employees could have varied motives for sharing documents and messages outside the familiar walls of their companies. Someone may like the feeling that being a confidential source gives them. They might harbor dreams of being Hal Holbrook’s Deep Throat to Robert Redford’s Bob Woodward in All the Presidents Men, whispering in a dark corner of a parking garage. They may want to punish the company for a perceived wrong. Or it may be a mistake—like an incorrectly entered email address.

Regardless of the reasons, regardless of the positive levels of engagement and trust your company might have with employees, and regardless of the controls you have in place, you should be prepared for inside information to find its way out.

Here’s how.

  • Admit vulnerabilities. Understand that a company policy prohibiting the sharing and distribution of confidential and trade secret information will not stop it from happening. It may dissuade some and offer a way to hold others accountable, but it’s not an impenetrable lock on the sharing gate.My company has a clearly outlined code of conduct which is acknowledged every year by every employee. Yahoo’s memo was clearly marked confidential and proprietary, with an instruction not to forward. Sometimes stamping a document with warnings does nothing more than make it more attractive to read and increase the temptation to share it.
  • Do not create internal messages in a vacuum. During the planning and preparation of every piece of mass communication, make sure the process includes a distinct review by someone who understands your external audiences, particularly the media. Your internal audience already has context for many messages, just by being familiar with the company’s inner workings; your external audience does not. Many internal communications are created with a singular focus on how they will be perceived by employees, but what about someone who has no context? This input can lead to simple word changes or clarifying messages that immediately dull any potentially harmful impact. It can also identify a need for a companion strategy for external communication.
  • Monitor for any evidence that the message has been shared using your established media and Internet monitoring processes, and have a clearly established response plan. Assume a reporter will get it and read it, and will ask for a response. How will you give them the proper context?
  • If a leak does occur, immediately address and clarify any misunderstandings or misinterpretations. The longer you wait, the more broadly it may be shared and the larger the audience becomes. The larger the audience, the harder it is for you to reach them to clarify the situation. When a leak occurs, it’s a natural response to want to find out how and why the message was shared, and by whom. It doesn’t matter. The barn door was left open and the horse needs to be corralled. There will be plenty of time to follow up later.

In the case of my company, we wanted our internal audience to know the hearing was going to take place. We also wanted to identify the individual who would offer testimony on broad industry practices. We erred in stating that the individual was representing the industry. When a Congressman asked if he was an industry representative, he answered that he wasn’t, offering a clear opening for the Congressman to produce our memo. We understood his role but erred in how we framed it. The Congressman continued his questioning without this inconsistency becoming a larger issue, but for those of us involved in drafting and approving the memo, it was a memorable lesson.

In Yahoo’s case, the company wanted to announce a policy change that affected employees who worked from home. They may have been able to minimize the external backlash if they had included some context for this decision, contrasted by their views on the business practice as a whole. It may not have minimized the criticism of their actions, but may have limited the negative commentary on the memo itself.

When this happens to you—and it will—you may wish you hadn’t sent the communication at all. And maybe you shouldn’t have. So think about this as you develop any mass communication: Is it necessary? Is it necessary to send it in this format and to this audience? And should there be a more controlled and limited distribution?

When you consider these questions, maybe the next time you hear “Wow, isn’t that the memo you helped write?” it will be music to your ears.

Joe Strupek
Joe Strupek is assistant vice president of public affairs at State Farm Insurance in Bloomington, Illinois.

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