Minimize the Damage from Information Leaks

Anyone who has led an organization has felt the frustration of leaked information, be it confidential negotiations, planned personnel moves or even informal discussions. More than other setbacks, leaks frustrate leadership because they also trigger an emotional reaction, which is a sense of betrayal from someone connected to the organization with whom sensitive information has been entrusted. These breaches of trust can range from the distracting to the embarrassing to the debilitating; the latter becoming a crisis that can take key personnel away from their regular responsibilities to deal with the stakeholder and public fallout.

To better understand the causes and ramifications of the often anonymous and unplanned sharing of sensitive information, let’s first examine why employees or partners will leak information. The main motivations of information leaks generally fall into three categories:

1. Quid Pro Quo Leak

This is when someone shares information with an outsider because they expect a favor in return, most likely in the form of something positive being said about them or their organization, or possibly a minimization of anything negative they may one day do.

2. Payback Leak

This is evening the score for a real or perceived slight an employee has received. This may be a recent decrease in responsibility or influence, being passed over for a project or promotion or any other number of grievances. These often can be extremely damaging, as the person leaking is motivated to cast the information in the most negative light for leader or organization.

3. Credibility Leak

An employee will share sensitive information to bolster their own image and credibility as someone important or “in the know.” These are often people who toil behind the scenes, want to be seen as important or relevant, and find themselves in possession of information they think will provide that image.

Crisis Management

Often people will say that a transparent organization need not fear information leaks, but this is naive. Think of all the information that circulates through your team each day, much of it sensitive or legally protected.

To minimize the unauthorized release of confidential information, these crisis management best practices can prevent or mitigate sensitive information leaks, such as:

“Found news” is always more interesting to the media than “shared news” and the longer you try to hold it, the greater the chances of a leak. If the media “discover” a story, it will receive more prominent play than information that is publicly shared by your organization. Sharing bad news first also increases the probability that your messages are in the initial reporting, which is extremely critical in the age of digital reporting.

Not everyone needs to know everything. While we would all rather be in the know, some things cannot be shared broadly with employees. While you want to engage as many people into a decision as possible, you must weigh that against the potential damage should sensitive information be shared prematurely. While good leaders want to share information with their people, the best leaders know what can and cannot be shared at any given time.

Your employees understand that there are things that cannot be shared widely at times, but they also expect to be communicated with when possible. Share non-sensitive information with employees regularly to reinforce an open culture and when you do share sensitive information publicly, share it with them simultaneously or just prior to public dissemination.

Don’t waste time trying to locate the source and keep emotion out of it. There is a very short window to include your messages into the first round of media coverage. You must quickly determine what you can legally and responsibly share and proactively communicate your message to stakeholders. Any time between the first reports of an information leak and your communications is time when only one side of the story is being represented to the public.

Because of the “whistle blower nature” of leaked information, the media and the public will view them as the more credible source, even when anonymous. All you can do is communicate honestly and directly to your audiences. If you have a track record of candor and forthrightness, your messages will land.

A streamlined organization, aware that the media will soon report leaked information, can minimize damage by releasing it on its own social media platforms. By prominently sharing your messages across the organizations’ digital channels, you may reach many of your stakeholders ahead of the media, potentially making it “old news” when the story hits.

Don’t Attack the Messenger or Disparage the Source

While a natural reaction, blaming the journalist, editor or media outlet is counterproductive. The media are doing their job, and you want them to report responsibly and sans emotion, while also including your messages.

Odds are, you won’t know for certain who leaked the information, and any punitive action will make you appear vengeful or vindictive. If you attempt to disparage an anonymous source, you may unknowingly be attacking someone with unassailable credibility or a colleague you have publicly praised only days before. Communicate truthfully and stick to the issue at hand.

Above all, take emotion out of the crisis management response. While leaks can be personally hurtful, that is precisely when you are thinking least clearly. Treat each step of the process as you would other business and organizational decisions.

While you will never stop information leaks entirely, you can minimize any real financial, reputational or organizational damage that the premature or anonymous sharing of sensitive information may cause.

If you’d like to learn more from our Crisis + Critical Issues Management team, connect with us.

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