Leakers are common and all companies need a plan for them.
No one likes to think there is a leaker in their midst. Still, says Ashley McCown, EVP and partner at Solomon McCown & Co., it's best to assume that every company has one.
"Always have a leak strategy," she says. "Most leaks can and should be prepared for in advance. [Statements and documents] can be tailored based on what actually occurs so you avoid the mad scramble."
One of Cushman/Amberg Communications' clients was planning to close a Midwestern plant and move it to Mexico. This news would have caused myriad problems if leaked. Agency president and CEO Tom Amberg prepared for a leak, while also taking preventative measures. In turn, the information didn't get out ahead of schedule.
"Always assume a leak will occur," he says. "Create scenarios of what could be leaked and what response could come. Limit the number of people with access to sensitive information. Use outside e-mail systems. Insist on limited copies of sensitive material; keep it in one binder; take it home. Very sensitive information must be kept very close."
Gary Koops, MD and chairman of Burson-Marsteller's US media practice, notes, "Substantive leaks are less about facts and more about timing. Think ahead about leak types and the business impact, which could [range] from competitive to regulatory to legal."
Chris Gidez, Hill & Knowlton's US director of risk management and crisis communications, suggests looking at the big picture before deciding how to handle a leak. "Look at legal issues, internal and external reputation issues, other stakeholders, and how the leak affects your end game," he says.
Determine who will address leaked information and in what mode (release, news conference, etc.). Never lie, cover up, or ignore reporters. "[Reporters] will write their story no matter what," McCown notes. "Always be part of the dialogue.
"We have a client with high-profile issues, pending litigation, and regulatory issues that have ebbed and flowed in the press for three years," she continues. "There have been outside leaks with fair regularity. Reporters [sometimes] refer to documents given by a regulator. Or they profess to be reading from a document. Or they've heard of a document and are seeking reaction. If they want comment, I have to see the document."
Gidez adds, "Your choices are to confirm, deny, clarify, or [offer] no comment. If a public company is involved, [determine] if it's a matter of material consequence. The PR department alone can't make the decision about [response]. In situations where information is wrong, it's not sufficient to deny or [decline] comment. It may be in your interest to get right information out there."
McCown stresses the need to correct misinformation quickly. "Information lives on the Web forever and can have a domino effect," she notes. "Have an online strategy and a [plan] for blogs. Blogs are an effective way to influence when there's a leak. It's quick."
Koops adds that communication with media and stakeholders should occur in rapid succession.
"A company was changing its name, which requires shareholder vote," he recalls. "That information [was] provided to a senior business journalist 48 hours [before] a planned announcement. It was true. [We had to] address that reporter's question factually and accurately and expedite communication with stakeholders because [we] didn't want them to see it on CNBC. It's become much more simultaneous today."
Don't let anger taint public response. "Always assess the real damage of the leak, not perceived damage coming from anger," says Amberg. "Sometimes people get angry and suddenly it's a major problem when maybe what got out [initially wasn't] so damaging."
It's tempting for companies to focus on the source of the leak rather than managing the consequences of it, which isn't advisable. The debacle at Hewlett-Packard last year illustrates how skewed things can become.
"As a communicator, it's not your job to focus on who's doing the leaking," Gidez says. "The public debate should not be about the company's effort to investigate leaks. It detracts from the substance of the leak and puts the company at risk of looking heavy-handed. Everybody should focus on managing reputation of the organization."
Limit the number of people with access to sensitive information
Separate fact from misinformation and correct false information quickly
Lie, cover up, or ignore reporters
Let public focus become about who did the leaking
Wait too long to communicate with press and stakeholders