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Media and Crisis Management

WikiLeaks threatens – are you ready for leaks

Posted on: July 29th, 2012

Crisis Management: WikiLeaks threatens – are you ready for leaksCrisis planning

Sun Microsystems co-founder Scott McNealy said, “You have zero privacy, get over it!” And that was before WikiLeaks dumped vast numbers of Pentagon and State Department secret documents into the public domain. With WikiLeaks most crisis experts believe we entered a new era of disclosure threat for all businesses and institutions and there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Crisis PR expert David Chamberlin warned, “No matter what you make, sell or serve, your organization is a potential target for data theft that can place all your valuable relationships at risk.”

Many think the likely target for leakers will be sordid, embarrassing and ugly information rather than the financial or trade secrets but I believe all data’s fair game.

Now that unhappy or concerned employees or individuals have a new model for leaking your secrets via the Internet and mainstream media, what’s a chief executive to do?

Prepare. If you know that you are a target then go on the offense.  Find the January 3 New York Times article about Bank of America’s extensive preparations taken after the bank learned it might be a WikiLeaks victim.  In the meantime, if you are generally prepared to respond to a crisis you could probably handle a disclosure. Most crisis principles still apply: have a plan, respond fast, take care of victims, fix the problem, keep stakeholders in the loop, communicate frequently. Be ready to apologize if you are exposed saying or doing something stupid. Avoid defensiveness. People don’t care about the leaker or the leak publisher. They only care about you.

Increase transparency. If it ain’t a secret then there’s no fun in leaking. Transparency takes on new meaning in a WikiLeaks world. Inform stakeholders more than ever. What drives employees crazy is the vague dis-ease that something’s amiss and no one’s talking. I once wrote of an executive who got a standing ovation when he announced a plant closing: because he had kept everyone aware of their fragile existence. Openness sounds counterintuitive in a leak-threat environment but it lowers the heat. By the way, learn the term “forced transparency.” Get comfortable disclosing uncomfortable information that could later be turned against you.

Connect with your people. Contented employees don’t seek revenge. Monitor their feelings and attitudes, meet and talk, and solve problems. PR veteran Doug Pinkham says companies “must operate honestly, they must explain clearly to employees and other stakeholders why they are doing anything that could be considered controversial.”

Watch the writing. Cool words make no noise: hot ones echo. Make appropriate email etiquette the culture. Encourage and require respectful businesslike communications and remind everyone that anything in writing could conceivably become public.

Validate secrecy and whistle-blowing. Blogger Peter Schram suggests ensuring “that employees understand that they are being asked to protect the company jewels, not hide malicious secrets.” Also explain that leaking is one thing and whistle-blowing another.

Limit secrecy. Less is best. Having ensured that a secret’s really a secret then share it only with those who need to know. Consider encrypted email, faxes, or no written communications. Restrict note-taking and control copies of critical documents.

Protect I.T. Humans leak, systems fail.  Re-evaluate computer security. Remember that a retaliating WikiLeaks supporter attacked Visa, MasterCard, PayPal and Amazon.

Lest you think this issue overstated, Bank of America’s stock dropped 3% on reports that it was a target of WikiLeaks. No wonder a BOA team of about 20 executives is working full time on the threat – just in case.

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