You may have noticed Donald Trump has been a bit preoccupied lately by what seems like an unprecedented number of anonymous leaks, on everything from Russian intelligence to federal income taxes.
For any administration, demoralized federal employees mixed with a media blackout is a combination almost certain to breed a culture of leaks. Trump, for his part, has not been the best example of how to handle these disclosures, virtually guaranteeing damaging information is pushed into the next news cycle by his exclamatory tweets, denouncements, and accusations, culminating in headlines such as, Trump team's push to stop leaks quickly leaks to press.
Some leaks are strategic, but those that aren’t can cause reputational harm, erode your customer base, and lower employee morale. While your company is not likely to reach a Trump-level frequency of leaks, it’s worth learning a few things from his missteps in the event your sensitive information is publicly shared. Here are some tips for a better PR strategy:
Identifying the “culprit.” Your first instinct might be to demand to know who “betrayed” you. Resist the urge. It’s never a good idea to ask a journalist to identify an anonymous source. And if your instinct is to fire off an angry memo to employees, vowing to out the leaker, remember that your internal memo can also be leaked. Leaks are usually a vote of no-confidence in you. An attempt to police the leak may only reinforce a perception that you’re out of touch with your company and further alienate employees. In the end, the motive of the leaker will have limited relevance as the focus will be on the information itself.
Outline your policy. You shouldn’t appear harassing. But you can gently outline your company media policy, instructing employees to refrain from commenting to reporters, and to instead pass on the reporter’s contact information, deadline, and questions to the company’s PR firm or spokesperson.
Preparing a written response. The best time to prepare a response to a leak is before the leak happens. That is, if you’re harboring sensitive information, you should have a response ready in case it becomes public. You may even want to draft statements that address various outcomes, then cater them to different audiences, such as investors, clients and employees. In the case of an investigation that has not been made public, a company might prepare an internal memo that seeks to reassure employees that management doesn’t expect any material harm to result from the probe.
Press statements can be “reactive,” responding only to press inquiries as they arise, or “proactive,” volunteering statements to reporters to retain more control over the conversation. Generally, press statements should be concise, responding to the central issue without divulging new information, but offering something beyond “no comment.” You should have boilerplate information ready about your company to highlight relevant facts to accompany any press statement.
Agreeing to an interview. Draft talking points for any spokesperson who agrees to an interview. For this, compare the reality to the perception. It may be the case that the truth, in its proper context, is less damaging than the perception. Does the leak simply uncover new information or does it also contradict a key policy? Does it suggest criminal wrongdoing? Is the media interest local or national? Is it personal embarrassment or grave injustice that demands a full mea culpa? The talking points will help you decide on the scope of the conversation, and how much is appropriate to confirm. Consider whether attorneys need to be involved. And of course, whatever you do, don’t lie. Keep in mind these other lessons the Trump administration has taught us about responding to the press.
Next, it’s just a matter of regularly monitor news and social media sites for further activity. And remember, feeding one leak the wrong way can spawn another.