The Wall Street Journal recently ran an article about the struggle corporations are having with leaks. In this age, the information you don’t want to become public is going to come out one way or another. The strongest firewall can be subverted by a careless (or motivated) employee gossiping at a vending machine. A stack of non-disclosure forms can be undone by the video camera in a mobile phone.
The solution is simple: stop trying to hide everything.
As the WSJ story’s examples show (layoffs, pay cuts), the “sensitive” information is frequently merely unflattering (as opposed to, say, intellectual property a competitor could use). Given that this information would eventually become public anyway (when the employees actually are laid off, or have their pay cut, or are subjected to abrupt / impersonal conversations with the managers who dispatch them) – what is to be gained from hiding it? All these corporations are doing is changing the timing (and in some ways they’re guaranteeing it will be a big, newsworthy event when it comes out at once as a big surprise instead of trickling out over time).
Wouldn’t it be better instead to be open and honest and treat employees with a bit of compassion instead? Not only would it build trust with stakeholders (a point recently echoed by Seth Godin) but it would also likely improve performance – as productivity tends to suffer in stressful times because employees are scared and engage in behaviors like information-hoarding to preserve their jobs. Trust in corporations has bottomed precisely because of all of this unnecessary secrecy.
This is also yet another great example of why public relations needs to be treated as a management function. After the fact, there’s little a PR pro can do to massage the perception of a company that behaves this way. Sitting at the table, however, a PR pro can help the organization think long term about how its actions may be perceived and propose alternatives.