Leaks are a reality of dealing with the media. But, discovers Eleanor Trickett, strong internal comms and a cool head will help locate the culprits and minimize the damageThey grease the wheels of political journalism the world over. They saw to it that the Office of Strategic Control went no further than a week's worth of outraged headlines. Without them, Deep Throat would be just another adult movie.
"Leaks! A fearsome subject for many,
says former President Clinton press secretary Mike McCurry - who should know. But he, like many others in the communications field, thinks leaks aren't always bad. Indeed, many PR pros claim that they merely distribute advantageous information that has no reason to be kept from the public domain other than a skittish CEO.
But, McCurry, now CEO of Grassroots Enterprises, clarifies, "There are two kinds of leaks: 'mine,' and 'theirs.' 'Mine' are the kind that advance some strategic objective by getting better placement for a desired communication,
and he cites exclusives in exchange for favorable placement or sensitive treatment of bad news. "'Theirs' are when someone outside the strategy leaks information to advance themselves, undercut the strategy, protect some other interest in the equation, or curry favor with the press. These are the leaks that drive decision makers and CEOs - not to mention presidents - crazy."
Tracking down these blab-happy employees is not easy, given that sooner or later, it all comes down to a journalist with a Cerberus-like desire to protect their sources. As David Monroe, media relations specialist at herbal supplement company Himalaya USA and a former agency exec says, few leaks are unsolicited, especially when it comes down to the trade media, which tends to have a closer-than-normal relationship with the organizations they cover.
"It's a two-way street. The trade media isn't dumb, they'll call the internal people,
he says, adding that a leak in this area can be a dead giveaway in any case. "If the leak shows up in the trade media, which other employees at the company rarely, if ever, talk to, then chances are the source is the PR person."
For any leaks, Monroe confirms that you haven't got a hope in hell of asking the journalist to tell you whose lips were flapping. However, he says, there are crafty ways to conduct this tricky conversation, such as framing your call as a helpful "I wish you hadn't got this story, but now that you have, I'll make sure it's as positive as possible" follow-up.
"Depending on my relationship with a journalist,
Monroe reveals, "I'd call him directly and speak off the record, so I can make sure that he has all his facts straight. I wouldn't frame it as a leak, as if you do, the chances are that he may just clam up. I would make it almost a fact-checking exercise - during which I'd ask some leading questions, such that the answers could possibly lead me to the right person. As an internal PR person, it's your job to know people within your company well enough to be able to deduce who would say what, and how they would say it."
Peter Himler, MD of media relations at Burson-Marsteller, adds, "Certain stories - especially material ones - tend to include information that is known by only a few. Therefore, you could sit down and think about it, look at those who had access to the information, and look at the nature of the leak."
There are, of course, other Nancy Drew-esque ways to track these leaks down. Himler attests, "I've heard of companies going through phone records, to see if anyone called the publication. Most workers today must realize that phone calls, and everything they write on e-mail, are traceable."
Victor Domine, a senior account exec at Weber Shandwick Worldwide's Campbell, CA office, dealt with a leak for one of his privately-held clients.
"An editor had confidential financial information - lay-off numbers, names of employees on the chopping block, and dollar amounts raised during private funding efforts - which was thought to be confined to the executive management team,
Domine and his team had the CEO instruct all employees to route media calls to the director of PR. But when the team turned to the editor himself, they found "he was unwilling to work with an agency when he had direct access to employees.
This was the third time that this particular editor had published confidential information over the past six months. So the agency suggested greater internal security measures around confidential files, limited access to the company intranet/remote access, and canceled the passwords of all former employees. "Additionally,
says Domine, "the agency recommended that the PR director no longer field any inquiries from this editor, forcing him to work with the PR agency or not at all."
The results were illuminating. "It became apparent that the editor didn't have any confidential informants, but was very skilled at asking the right questions to the right people for his stories. 'Leaks' turned out to be low-level, well-meaning employees who thought they were discussing public matters. After all, 'if the media already knew about it, then we weren't telling them anything they didn't already know, right?'"
In other words, McCurry agrees, leaks should not happen if your internal communications procedures are good enough. "Leaks are usually the result of flawed procedures for internal communications because people have not bought into the strategy or policy being pursued - usually because they were not a part of the decision,
he says. "Only folks who feel disconnected from the organization take the risk of leaking contrary to the plan."
Himler firmly advocates prevention over cure, believing that good enough internal communications will prevent undesirable external ones. "It's a matter of instituting very strict policies regarding any information that's sensitive,
he says. "That's a function not only of the communications department, but also the HR and legal departments, ensuring that the policy and code of conduct regarding talking to the news media is understood by all. And you have to periodically remind them of it."
Of course, there are other more draconian methods of minimizing the chance of sensitive information being prematurely disseminated. "Some years ago, at another agency, a client was having a big merger announcement the next day,
Himler recalls. "We got a call from a Wall Street Journal reporter, and the CEO of the company immediately demanded that the switchboard be turned off.
He pauses. "That was kind of rash."