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Managing Reputation When Everything Leaks

Every week we see a new story about a leak, a hack, or mistaken post of data and content that the public was not supposed to see. From Johnny Manziel’s party gaffes to political secrets, everything seems to get leaked these days. The question is how do communicators manage reputation in the certain face of embarrassing moments.

Leak - Public Relations

Everything leaks is what futurist David Brin aptly surmised in his post last week about privacy. In essence, communicators have to face three realities:

A) People engage in unsavory or embarrassing acts every single day. A certain percentage of the population is always engaged in such activity, including your workforce.

B) The combination of public surveillance and personal smartphones makes almost every moment recordable. So if there is a vested interest in digital data or content getting out, then sooner or later it will.

C) There is always a back door. Whether it is a robust government database or personal smartphone, digital is hackable.

Brand communicators need to be ready for a leak driven crisis at any moment. To some extent, social media has forced this reality onto communicators already. Now however, the crisis preparation needs to be for internal content and data. Here are some quick suggestions to help prepare for the very high likelihood of leaks.

1) Follow Traditional Crisis Principles

Don't Panic - Reputation Management

Factual, responsible statements are a long-standing part of crisis communications. Own what you did in a factual manner, take responsibility, and clean it up. Facebook recently had to do this with its A/B test issue. While people were not necessarily happy with the company, Facebook owned its actions and pointed to its user policy.

More than anything, a crisis is usually the result of something wrong. Own your side of the street promptly, make public amends, and then move forward with a painful lesson learned.

Want to know more about dealing with crisis? Here are tips from Judy Smith, the inspiration for the hit show “Scandal.”

2) Update Your Ethics and Termination Clauses

Ethics - Reputation Management

Have you updated your ethics code to include digital data and content? Do so at your earliest convenience. Further, make sure you can sever ties with executives and employees for horrific or embarrassing behavior is leaked online.

Whether it’s an act of violence like Ray Rice’s domestic abuse incident or a more embarrassing moment like Representative Anthony Weiner’s, be empowered to fire if necessary. That doesn’t mean the organization can’t stand by someone who made a mistake like the Texas Rangers did when former manager Ron Washington tested positive for cocaine use, but it gives you more options.

3) Be Open in the Dark

Notre Dame - Reputation Management

Also be sure to not over promise solutions and be clear what you don’t know. If you don’t know something, let people know you are investigating and tell them when they can expect the next update. This is particularly true of criminal situations that require investigations, and the worst cases trials.

Updates should be open about not knowing all of the facts, too. Reverend John Jenkins is simply masterful at updating people without debunking Notre Dame’s current academic scandal investigation. By the way, Notre Dame didn’t wait for a leak, they self reported. Smart, very smart.

4) If the Crime Affects Others, Share the Crime

Edward Snowden - Reputation Management

It may seem crazy, but if your data or content has been violated in a public manner, then be open about it and go on the offensive. Last week’s starlet photo hack and the resulting responses from the celebrities showed the offended parties going on the offensive. In doing so, they created empathy as opposed to shock.

When I consider the massive Target hack that occurred this past winter, my belief remains the company took too much heat for what is an increasingly common crime. Target did not speak much about the incident other than to acknowledge the hack. Going on the offensive would have been better.

Eric Snowden is not welcome in the United States after violating trust for a reason. When he leaked government data for whatever reason, he also committed a crime. It’s no secret how the U.S. government and its supporting contractors feel about the vigilante. While Snowden has his fans many Americans do not view him favorably. Perhaps that impact is being felt, as his most recent cover story on Wired! showed a more conciliatory “anti-hero.”

More than anything, I expect gaffes to become increasingly common. That in turn desensitizes their impact on people and companies alike, particularly if companies handle them in a timely, ethical manner.

What do you think about our everything leaks digital reality?

Image: Frederik LingeDarla, Ken Lund, Mike Mozart (Creative Commons)

About Geoff Livingston

Geoff is president and founder of Tenacity5 Media, a digital marketing agency that provides content marketing and social media services. A former journalist, Geoff continues to write, and has authored five books. Follow him @geoffliving.

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