Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Glass Houses for Everyone

Those of us blessed to be public servants understand all too well the phenomenon of WikiLeaks -- we call it the Freedom of Information Act. However, for many corporations, transparency can be as, well, opaque as the company wishes since they are private.

The savvy understand their brand is no longer their own thanks to social media. Now the digital revolution threatens their backshop as well. PRSA's weekly email carried this link from AOL News by Gary McCormick. He anticipates the WikiLeaking to reach out into business, and warns the time to prepare is now.

McCormack is concerned that too many look at crisis management as:

"a misguided belief that any bad news can be mitigated with enough messaging, calls for internal investigations and TV appearances where the CEO is seen in the heart of the action"

Hmm, that sounds a little too familiar.

McCormack has some clear advice:

"Viewing WikiLeaks as an enemy threat would be a mistake. Instead, it should be seen as an opportunity; a global call to action for CEOs to transparently present their full and honest side of the story. "

If that doesn't provide religion, Forbes Magazine's Stephanie Nora White and Rebecca Theim bring the revival in their WikiLinks and the New Corporate Crisis. They focus in on Julian Assange's group proper, and the very real financial impact on Bank of America -- simply on the threat of disclosure.

Where McCormack is providing the sound PR advise, White and Theim give us grim reality:

Wikileaks is ushering in a new form of the "reputational crisis," in which the very way an organization and its leaders operate, think and respond is made public.

They point to all the same talking points that McCormack referenced in events like the BP spill, and remind us the thing we remember: messages of the former CEO "wanting his life back". In the Forbes piece, the authors talk with Margaret Heffernan, author of Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril.

"A company where there's no dissent is at serious risk," Heffernan says. Because dissenters can pinpoint your areas of greatest risk, doing so will help an organization identify its most acute vulnerabilities.

Again, a lot of this is nothing new to those in the college sports realm as most of us are under some form of state employee/agency FOIA. Still, it's important to keep in mind some of White and Theim's closing bullet points -- most centered around it's not if, but when, you find our documents on the street with things so easily copied. They talk a lot about doing things now -- like embracing dissent within the organization to strengthen it from the inside and investing more in getting employee buy-in to reduce the chance of negative feelings. They conclude:

Technology is making it more and more difficult for those in power to control information--particularly information that shows their institutions have behaved distastefully, hypocritically or even criminally.

More succinctly: Business world, meet the social network.

1 comment:

Keith said...

Bill - As a longtime reader of your blog, going back to my days in athletics media relations at Illinois State and Truman State (I'm a big fan of you and your colleagues' work at Arkansas), it was great seeing you blog about WikiLeaks and the current concerns within the corporate world over where the next attack will hit, and how PR and communications professionals can best advise companies to manage those situations.

As someone who is intimately involved in developing PRSA's advocacy efforts, both on behalf of members and the broader public relations profession, it's always great to see a professional of your stature and experience providing additional commentary and perspective around such a pressing issue as companies handling the new realities of the "WikiLeaks Age."

And your points about those working in colleges, universities and government settings already well accustomed to these types of disclosure issues is spot-on. It was something I personally learned to work with while working for two universities, that helped guide my own personal perspective on the need for companies to be more transparent, and the role of PR professionals in helping them do so.

Keith Trivitt
Associate Director of Public Relations
Public Relations Society of America (PRSA)