While WikiLeaks continues to embroil and embarrass governments around the world, corporations and other organizations need to reassess their own vulnerability to the increasing threat of “involuntary transparency.”
WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange told Forbes Magazine that more than half the documents he is holding are about listed corporations, including a major American bank. Assange didn’t name the target, but Bank of America’s share price suddenly fell by 3% on the persistent rumour that they might be the one. When a major company’s share value falls simply because investors think they MIGHT have something to hide, it is clear that the problem is not just WikiLeaks, but the perception of what companies are doing behind closed doors and who might unwisely be putting it in writing.
The impact of what Forbes writer Andy Greenberg neatly called involuntary transparency can be devastating for organizations caught up in the release of embarrassing or incriminating documents. Just within the last 12 months there have been
• Emails which exposed the FIFA bribery scandal and may have helped scuttle Britain’s World Cup bid
• Leaked internal documents which showed how oil trader Trafigura was dumping toxic waste in West Africa, and led to settlements of over $200 million
• Hacked emails from the University of East Anglia which raised serious questions about climate change scientists and potentially undermined the global warming debate
• A costly lawsuit against Pfizer over the drug Neurontin, which included a ten year old internal email from its Medical Director described their product as “snake oil”
• And just last week, a high ranking executive at Duke Energy resigned after a newspaper published improper emails exchanged with a top government regulator
WikiLeaks and Assange may be “villians de jour” at present, but the reality is they could not survive without people inside organizations who commit unwise or improper material to writing and other people who leak it. And most leaking comes from insiders.
Certainly, electronic media such as email and twitter have made it easier to get caught, and the internet has made it easier to publish leaked documents without any editorial or legal restraint. Furthermore, many countries have whistle-blower legislation specifically designed to protect people who leak sensitive information. But the responsibility lies almost entirely within corporates and other organizations not to create damaging documents, and to encourage an open environment in which people will be less likely feel the need to leak information.
So what can organizations do? In his Forbes cover-story interview, Assange offered this rather naive advice: “Do things to encourage leaks from dishonest competitors. Be as open and honest as possible. Treat your employees well.” Certainly, being honest is a good start, but experience shows that honest deeds and honest opinions can be very easily misinterpreted, especially by determined mischief-makers.
Many companies right now are reviewing their plans for what they will do and say if sensitive documents are unexpectedly exposed to the light of day. But that is about crisis response, not crisis prevention. Apart from making sure managers and employees understand not to do dumb stuff and not to write dumb stuff down, the best advice is a reminder of the maxim which should appear above the desk of every public relations practitioner – Nothing Remains Secret Forever.