Conveying sensitive information is risky but withholding briefings until
the last moment can be equally dangerous, says Gordon Knight
Some years ago I advised the board of a major public company involved in
an exchange of businesses with one of its leading competitors.
After three months of liaising closely with the competitor’s
communications team to ensure co-ordination of style, content and timing
of the external and internal announcements, everything was ready.
D-day minus five saw our side’s top management briefed; minus two:
middle management; minus one: major customers, customer liaison staff
and selected opinion formers and, on D-day itself, remaining staff,
customers and suppliers and the media.
All went smoothly with the client, the changes were effected with
minimal disruption and fall-out from staff and customers was
insignificant. Within the competitor, however, in spite of the
similarities of the communication, rumbles of discontent began almost
immediately and have lasted to this day with serious commercial impact.
So how could one company’s meat apparently turn into another’s poison?
Part of the reason lay in the cultural and stylistic differences between
the two companies: one had invested heavily in communications, the other
had made little advance on the company newspaper and annual report.
But subsequent analysis, proved that company A had got the balance of
trust and timing right; company B, with a history of leaks and critical
media reports, had not.
While company A was confideny in briefing key senior and middle
management early, on the implications of the changes and allow them time
to prepare for their own roles in the communication, company B
considered the risks too great.
Once the story broke, company B managers were put on the defensive,
found it hard to deal with staff and customer questions and fell back on
the written materials intended to reinforce rather than deliver the
Since research shows that people prefer to receive important
communications directly from their immediate manager or business
contact, it was perhaps inevitable that many of the managers, whose
support was vital to the success of the change, felt sidelined and
inhibited in defending the company’s position.
No doubt company B’s communications team would argue that the issues
were too important, the risk of leaks too great and Stock Exchange
regulations too restrictive to manage the communication any other way.
No quoted company would ignore the importance of its sector analysts
when making any major announcement. Perhaps rather more, however, might
not always give the same priority to opinion formers, whose views will
immediately be sought by the media, and to managers and staff - or
It’s not easy to persuade a board of directors that taking some of these
audiences into their confidence at an earlier stage than the planned
public announcement to the media is worth the risks. But it is often the
most resistant boards that can be the most ‘leaky’ themselves.
It takes a fine judgement to determine the ideal timing and extent of
important pre-briefings of both internal and external intermediaries.
The difference it can make to the success of the whole communication is
And the risks? Well, planning for and minimising those is what we’re
paid for, isn’t it?
Gordon Knight is managing director of Lodestone Communications