Opinion: Was I really meant to see/hear this? - Confidentiality dos and donts

Jean-Michel Dumont, chairman of Ruder Finn Asia, shares some simple tips on keeping things confidential in an increasingly connected world

Coming up in the lift this morning, I overheard snippets of a conversation I am sure I was not meant to hear. Although the company concerned was one I was familiar with, the person’s name and situation meant nothing to me. But what if it did?

At a time where we are bombarded by daily news of hacking, whistle-blowing and leaks, are we still being complacent with the very basics of keeping confidential information secure? Surely, as communications consultants, we need to do our part to safeguard confidentiality.

Yet, it is unbelievable how many times I have been confronted by situations where some peers let their guard down… and I am only talking about the simple day-to-day things. Here are 10 embarrassing situations to avoid and related tips.

1) Taxis, planes and elevators

A colleague recently sat in a plane behind two competitors who were discussing a campaign proposal, from strategy to budget. Although we were not involved in that specific pitch, my colleague had plenty of time and latitude to study the way the competition functions and its budgeting process. Makes you wonder if these people thought they were on their private plane or just plain stupid? On a crowded plane, you would think commonsense would prevail. I have encountered similar situations in my many travels, in which my neighbours were reviewing proposals, strategic documents and even a strategic plan to downsize their operation. Elevators? Need I say more?  I should also add trams, ferries and buses, depending on which city you are in. Keep your discussion on strategy, proposals and budgets behind closed doors, not in public places and definitely not within the hearing of strangers. Often people hold highly sensitive discussions in taxis on their way to a meeting. They assume the taxi drivers are not listening, deaf or from another planet.

2) To lend or not to lend

In a moment of empathy and to help a fellow person in trouble without a computer or connection, we will tend to lend our devices to them to access their account. It could be a friend, a journalist (or both), colleague, ex-colleague, in fact anyone. There are no boundaries to human curiosity and if your computer contains highly confidential material, and I don’t mean R-rated selfies, you are an open library. My advice: DO NOT lend your computer. Even if this means that, as a consequence, no one will lend you one when you are in dire need.

3) Leave no seat, table or counter unchecked

The British government has been embarrassed by a slew of carelessness by civil servants who left highly classified documents on trains or misplaced USBs. (It has happened in other countries too, including Australia.) These have included documents on global terrorist funding, drug trafficking and money laundering. One lost USB was encrypted… but had a sticker on it with the password. I have witnessed the panic when someone has left a confidential folder unattended or has gone leaving it behind, as I have had the pleasure to find confidential briefing documents to CEOs on press conference seats after an event. After a conference or event – or any small meeting for that matter - take a last look around and collect all materials. Briefing documents usually include a lot of confidential elements that media or competitors would love to get their hands on.

4) Email unlimited

Delete past dialogues. I repeat ‘Delete past dialogues’. I receive hundreds of emails a day. I can’t remember all the conversations and will go through the past dialogue to recap. I often see how the emails have evolved and sometimes I am the subject of the discussion before it comes to me! I have also encountered past dialogues on strategies and budget. YES people do scroll down! Delete, delete, delete.

5) Hold back the forwarding

Another email mistake I see people making often is forwarding confidential documents – simply because it is easy. Beyond the horror stories of e-mails that ended up on social media, I have seen incriminating e-mails forwarded and ending up in the client mailbox; others emails undermining a colleague ending up in their mailbox or their best friend’s, eroding years of trust.

6) Return to sender

Check who you are replying to. One habit that really bugs me is the loose use of the ‘Reply All’ button. Firstly, it clogs up the inbox with unnecessary information or chitchat. Secondly, the conversation may have shifted to a higher security level but still the ‘Reply All’ button is used. Having said this, I must admit I have learnt a lot in my past professional lives by simply keeping silent and being copied. And I don’t mean answering all by mistake when making a snappy comment only meant for one person. Sometimes it can be really funny and then again it can be a career killer.

7) The importance of not sharing

Don’t be too eager to share former client information with new clients or the media. Almost certainly, your contracts will contain confidentiality clauses and these are legally enforceable. Even if the break-up was painful, keep information confidential that was intended to be confidential in the past. I often use in my media training the example of a client who successfully handled a critical downsizing, with no backlash from the government, unions or negative media coverage. That same client spilled the beans to a reporter friend two years later. Guess what? It made for a wonderful story on MNC challenges in that specific market.

8) Switch off then speak

Are you aware that we are always into the next conversation the nanosecond we think we are off the phone? Have you not heard the start of a conversation as you are about to switch off after a phone call?  A friend told me that she once heard the next plan of action when she just finished a brief conversation with a client. He was in such a hurry to get back into his discussion that he just put his mobile down without switching off! Another more intimate one was an angry call back from a husband after he heard his wife calling him an idiot as she rang off after speaking to him sweetly. Be very mindful. And respectful.

9) Social Media an open secret

Keep your business schedule off your social media. Many of my peers (and supporting head-hunters) go through Facebook for intelligence. It is the first port of call for media when anyone or any organisation becomes news. Do not mention you are burning the midnight oil for a pitch (or, even worse, name the client!), off to an important meeting at a certain place or "Yahoo! If we win this contract we will be …." Best way to lose the pitch!

10) Bin it!

Has anyone borrow a USB stick from you lately? This is quite normal when the file is heavy and the internet is slow. Have you checked what is in your USB before you hand it over? A colleague was recently given one to keep when she needed to transfer some data. On it she found some confidential documents regarding the financing of a project. Bin your documents before you hand over a USB.

Common sense? Yes, but it happens all the time. Setting up an employee confidentiality training course 101 may not be such a bad idea for many organisations.

Oh, and I have also heard that some big conference rooms are bugged….

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