The giant Wikileaks data dump is making headlines for the contents of the revealed documents. It is also making headlines as a landmark internet event. The revelation of thousands of pages of Pentagon, US Department of State and other government documents was followed with the news that a major financial institution is next.
This will not be the last event of this kind. Digital documents, downloading, thumb drives and processor speeds have made this too easy. It can happen to you and your organization. There are technical people who can advise you far better than I can on how to beef up your information security. The history of information technology teaches us that almost all security measures can eventually be defeated.
That leaves you with no choice. You must have a communications strategy ready if and when a data dump happens to you.
When running political campaigns, one of the most vital departments is “oppo” – or opposition research. Researching the opposition is good – researching yourself is vital.
Years ago , when starting a campaign for a candidate for public office, I did my due diligence and asked the candidate my usual series of uncomfortable questions. The list included “Have you ever been arrested?” The candidate told me “No.” Three days later, the candidate sheepishly admitted that he had been arrested once in college days. It was a case of mistaken identity and nothing came of it.
Sure enough, as my candidate was heading for a big win, his desperate opponent trotted out the arrest record. Since we had done our research, the campaign was ready and turned the tables on the mudslinging opponent. There was no “deer in the headlights” or “gotcha!” moment. The result was victory.
In the same way, your organization must find out what is in your files. Are there potentially embarrassing internal assessments about clients, vendors or competitors? What about evaluations of current and former employees, or even current top management? Are there any digital skeletons in your virtual closet?
Keep it Confidential
This must be done by a highly trusted and discrete individual or team– either inside or outside the organization. After all, you will be handing this person or team the “keys to the kingdom.” The last thing you want to do is choose a person who ultimately becomes a leaker!
Here’s an idea on how to help keep their findings confidential; hire the assignment done under the retainer of an attorney. This may keep their findings in the undisclosable realm of attorney client privilege. (Disclaimer: please verify this with your own legal counsel, I am not an attorney nor do I play one on the internet.)
You may want to have a team do this research since financials as well as language can come into play. Were there any comments that could be misunderstood from your audits, or tax records? Are there any legal issues? It helps to have someone who can analyze financials, someone with legal and someone with a public relations background.
Have a Plan
Once you have done your self-audit, ask yourself how bad is it? What will this look like as the main headline of the Drudge Report or the equivalent for your industry? Do not pooh-pooh the impact – after all you know the reason behind each revelation, don’t trust that your entire side of the story will cut through the Fog of Scandal. What will your answer to embarrassing questions be? This means questions from media, from clients (angry to be a part of the scandal), business partners, investors and employees. The answers for each of these audiences may be different to address their concerns. Think them through and have them ready.
If you get a sinking feeling in your stomach when you read the results – consider placing on retainer public relations professionals with crisis management skills and experience. These are people who can help you weather the digital storm by staying calm, at the very moment almost everyone in your organization will be flustered.
Proper preparation is vital today. Who knows who will be leaked next? If you are ready, you can at least minimize damage, and possibly even turn your fifteen minutes of infamy into a positive.