Media Leaks: Plugging the hole in your bucket

In business, even the tightest of ships can occasionally spring a leak. The key factor is how you fix it, and how quickly.

In business, even the tightest of ships can occasionally spring a leak. The key factor is how you fix it, and how quickly.

Media leaks are simply a part of the cost of doing business. But if they are handled well, the headaches and embarrassment they cause can be minimized, says Sallie Gaines, SVP of media at Hill & Knowlton.

"Humility goes a long way," says Gaines. "You have to respond to such situations as you would any other news about your company. If it's damaging, you almost always need to respond, and no one ever leaks anything good. A leak is typically going to be about something bad, and that could create a potential crisis.

"Any delay in a response is seen as arrogance," she adds. "Blaming the individual who leaked the news just makes you look worse."

Companies should not only be prepared for leaks, they should anticipate them, asserts Bruce Rubin, a senior counselor at RBB PR, who focuses on litigation and crisis communications. Companies must factor leaks into their PR plans as soon as they start to develop strategy. By anticipating leaks, they can respond immediately when one surfaces.

"You have to mentally prepare your clients, and their attorneys, for leaks long before they ever happen," says Rubin. "There's still a tendency for clients to think we can control the media."

Responding swiftly is key, agrees Greg Romano, director of public affairs for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's national weather service. If a company doesn't respond to a leak, the odds are pretty good that the story will escalate, he says.

Even if a company cannot comment because of legal reasons, they need to say so, advises Romano. Citing legal matters for their silence is a lot better than offering no response at all, he adds.

However, there's a fine line between rushing headlong into a potential media maelstrom to put out a fire and just adding more fuel to that fire. Companies should act quickly, says Larry Smith, president of the Institute for Crisis Management, but they also need to weigh how serious the leak is and ascertain just who has reported it and who has read about it.

"Before you respond to a leak, or add to it, look at how many people the initial story reached," says Smith. "Of the media outlets in which it was reported, how many read those newspapers, listen to those radio reports, or watch those TV broadcasts? You need to consider that before responding, because when you react, that means another story, which could do more harm as it brings up the issues again."

The press thrives on conflict, adds Smith. And responding can sometimes add to that conflict. But responding can also bring the story to an end. Being truthful and transparent can score big points, and you only score points when playing offense, not defense.

With that in mind, Smith advocates telling the truth and trying to put the issue into a larger context. People will forgive you if make a mistake, he says, "[but] they won't forgive you if you try to cover it up or lie about it."

When it comes to finding the source of a leak, companies can sometimes find the culprit by simply looking in the mirror, says Romano.

Using "reply all" in e-mails is one of the best and easiest ways to send information to someone who shouldn't have it, he cautions. People respond to e-mail so immediately that they often fail to double-check who they are responding to. In turn, they accidentally forward it to someone who shouldn't receive it. Companies need to recognize that anything that they put in writing could make its way into the hands of the media.

Rubin says that many clients who are the victims of leaks declare they will get to the bottom of who betrayed them and leaked the information. But Rubin cautions that it is usually very difficult, and potentially very expensive, to discover the source of a leak.

"And what do you do when you find the person?" asks Rubin. "What kind of example are you really setting?"

Gaines agrees that it can be counterproductive to hunt down the person. Moreover, having e-mails and phone calls traced only sends the message that the company finds its employees untrustworthy, which heightens any anger staffers might already have.

"This is just a part of business," says Rubin. "You have to roll with the punches and have people who are prepared to deal with a leak when it happens. Hunting someone down is not the way to go. It really comes back to who needs to know the information.

"If it's sensitive information," he continues, "then the fewer people who know, the better off you are. Sensitive information should not be e-mailed."

Not only do companies have to be extremely careful when responding to leaks, but they must also be equally cautious when they are leaking the information themselves. Sometimes companies leak information to damage a rival. In other cases, they'll leak information as a trial balloon in an effort to learn the market's reaction to possible new initiatives.

Smith says he can't think of any situation where intentionally leaking information is a good idea. The odds are pretty high that someone will figure out where the leak came from. He stresses that companies and people should only intentionally leak information if they can live with the consequences of being caught.

And the leaks need to come from someone who has credibility, says Gaines. That person must also have documentation to back up whatever is being leaked.

"Leaking information is not something for amateurs," adds Rubin. "It needs to be someone who knows what they're doing. You have to be very careful because you don't want to have it come back that you were the one who leaked the information. Leaking information is a dangerous game that can do some real damage."

Technique tips

Do respond quickly and carefully. By being transparent, you can bring the story to a close

Do develop a plan to deal with any possible leaks long before they happen

Do put the leaked information into a larger context to diminish any possible damage

Don't be defensive and try to cover up the issue. All that will accomplish is prolonging the story's life

Don't deny factual information

Don't try to put a positive spin on bad news

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