August 10, 2023
How to Respond When Your Firm’s Private Information is Leaked to the Press
This past May, Ernst & Young announced that Project Everest, the firm’s plan to split its auditing and consulting operations, was officially dead. “People familiar with the matter” had been leaking details of infighting and pushback to The Wall Street Journal as early as March. And as the plan circled the drain, $600 million in sunk costs and 3,000 jobs went down with it.
Leaks happen during transformational moments and other periods of disquiet within a partnership, and they can be destabilizing for a leadership team. It doesn’t really matter why people leak information – whether it’s to blow the whistle, toot their own horn, exert influence over a firm’s direction, or grind an ax – damage may be done regardless.
Leaks can harm your firm’s reputation, sow doubt among key stakeholders, and complicate lucrative, transformative plans, from mergers to operational overhauls. So if your firm’s sensitive information makes its way to the press, don’t shrug it off as a mere annoyance. Treat the event like the PR crisis it is.
As we’ve advised our own clients who’ve been victims of leaks, you can’t unring this bell. But you can mitigate and lessen the impact of unwanted exposure by responding in the following ways.
1. Talk to the Reporter When Approached About a Leak
When reporters reach out to ask your firm for a comment about something they’ve been told, it’s only natural to want to respond with a curt “no comment.” That’s a mistake.
True, you may not be able to answer specific questions about rumors and speculation, especially if you’re in confidential M&A talks. And any on-the-record response should be carefully calibrated to address the concerns of stakeholders and avoid provoking additional questions.
But you can talk to reporters “on background” to provide additional information that allows them to contextualize what they’ve heard and write more nuanced, balanced pieces.
Understanding “On Background” Conversations
“Background” can be a fuzzy concept. Everyone who’s seen All the President’s Men thinks they know what it means, but news outlets rarely treat such conversations exactly the same way. So before you dive in, make sure you and the reporter are on the same page as to what you’re agreeing to, and to whom the information you provide may be attributed.
Here’s how The New York Times describes “on background” and “on deep background,” and the guardrails you should establish with a reporter before the conversation starts:
Can a source be quoted by name? Can we use the information if we leave out the name? Can we at least describe the source’s job?…
Generally, “on background” is understood to mean that the information can be published, but only under conditions agreed upon with the source… A reporter might negotiate with those sources to at least describe their jobs in broad strokes, to give a reader proper context: “a federal worker who shared the material,” “a government official with access to the information.”
Deep background… is where establishing ground rules is particularly important, since many journalists and sources have competing definitions. For some, there is no practical distinction between “background” and “deep background”… Others interpret it to mean that information can be used only for the reporter’s context and understanding, with no attribution of any kind.
If you agree to provide background for a story, be crystal clear about what you mean and confirm whether or not the information you provide can be attributed to you in any way, and if not to you directly, then how the attribution should be framed..
The Value of “On Background” Conversations
Clients we’ve helped go on background are generally happier with the outcome of unexpected press coverage than clients who refrain from speaking to reporters at all. Talking to a reporter on background enables you to contextualize a leak and can help the reporter see the situation more completely. Credible journalists want to provide accurate, well-rounded information, so going on background can alter the way they frame the report.
True, you’re unlikely to ever be entirely happy with the press coverage your firm receives as a result of a leak. But even so, the only way to influence the outcome is to talk to the reporter as much as you reasonably can. Doing so also helps build relationships with the press – if the news is consequential enough, this may not be the last story they write on the subject.
2. Anticipate the External Impact of Internal Messages
When you need to communicate with internal stakeholders about difficult PR situations, craft your internal messages as if they’re public statements
You should always be as transparent and upfront with employees as is prudent. That’s true on any given day, and it’s true in times of crisis. Even so, it’s important to bear in mind that every memo, email, text message, and video you share also has the potential to be leaked.
Partners and employees can easily share internal communications with a journalist or take matters into their own hands and share them with sites like Above the Law, Fishbowl, and Reddit. Parse your messages carefully to avoid adding fodder to an already tricky situation.
3. Consider Multiple Stakeholders
Leaked information always has a ripple effect. So as soon as you can, think about who will be impacted by the story once it hits — and do what you can to get ahead of it.
The faster you can release a statement to those in your audience likely to be impacted by press reports on previously confidential information, the better. Why? It’s always preferable for your stakeholders to hear news from you before they hear it elsewhere. Breaking the news first allows you to explain the matter, paint a more complete picture, and provide context that a reporter may or may not include.
The Right Way to Communicate With Stakeholders in a PR Crisis
Be clear, direct, and transparent – in internal and external communications alike. Don’t hide behind vague corporate language. It’s ok to correct misinformation and falsehoods, but you should also take responsibility if your firm misstepped in any way.
Give careful thought to:
- How you communicate. Which channel will allow you to reach your various stakeholder groups most effectively? Should you call high-value clients personally? Hold a town hall meeting for employees? Send a mass email to your larger client list?
- Who delivers the message. Who should be the spokesperson to each stakeholder group? Your CEO may not be the right person for every member of your audience. Depending on the situation, it might be wise to select another senior leader, a mid-level manager, or even a trusted community partner to make your case with various groups and help your firm retain trust.
- When you communicate. If it’s not possible to get ahead of the story, be sure to follow it up in a timely manner. Let your stakeholders know that you’re aware of the press coverage and offer as much information as you can about your firm’s position.
Remember: The world is not your audience. Your employees, clients, business partners, and in some cases your peers, industry and affinity groups are the people you need to worry about. Provide the information they need to understand what is happening. And monitor your firm’s two-way communication channels for stakeholder feedback so you can respond to questions and concerns as they arise.
An Ounce of Prevention: Take Steps to Strengthen Your Firm’s Culture
Information leaks can be professionally damaging and personally disheartening for leaders in professional service firms. In the heat of the moment, the only thing you can do is respond to the crisis at hand.
Stepping back, it is worth contemplating the cypherpunk construct that information wants to be free. Considering the human compulsion to share information with one another sociably, the rationalization humans are capable of when told they can’t do something, like share information, and the rapid decentralization of organizational design, executives may be forgiven for believing that leaks are an inevitability. If secrecy is mission critical to your organization, communication prohibitions may be put in place and steps taken to strengthen compliance and reduce the likelihood of employee backlash and resistance. (for more, see Sussman, Harvard Business Review, 2008.)
Short of that, it’s also worth contemplating that firms with positive, transparent, and collaborative cultures tend to experience fewer leaks than those operating in a top-down, opaque fashion. So once your PR crisis is over, it can be helpful to identify the steps you can take to foster a healthier internal climate. These should include reshaping how you communicate going forward. Clear, consistent and appropriate internal messaging about leadership aims and decisions can foster an atmosphere of trust that will limit future leaks.
At the end of the day, protecting your firm’s reputation requires you to be both reactive and proactive. Respond swiftly when leaks happen. Talk to the reporter, and talk to your stakeholders. But along the way, don’t neglect the long-term work of creating an environment where partners and employees have zero desire to divulge sensitive information in the first place.
No matter what you’re facing, Greentarget would love to help you position your firm for immediate and long-term success. So let’s talk.