SVP, Communications, Aetna (Retd.)
Senior Counselor, RBC Strategic Consulting
I was perhaps a bit naïve in my post yesterday when I said, “From time to time, courts may require disclosure and activists may obtain and release information, much as Mr. Assange does in the government arena.”
In the back of my mind, I thought perhaps Wikileaks would pose a direct threat to business, but not having any solid reason to suspect this, I dismissed the thought. Not even 24 hours later, Forbes released an interview with Julian Assange in which he threatens a major leak of thousands of documents from a major U.S. bank and indicates that businesses in multiple sectors will be next. Given his track record of delivering on his threats, there’s no reason to think Mr. Assange is bluffing.
This has the potential to reveal proprietary information about product development, financials, personnel issues and more. All of which could be damaging to a company’s competitive position. It also has the potential to reveal embarrassing frank exchanges that suggest bias, unethical practices or corruption. All of which could be damaging to corporate reputation.
What’s a company to do? First of all, seek to eliminate any hint of wrongdoing. Many companies do an excellent job of adopting and enforcing highly ethical codes of conduct, but even in those companies, there are from time to time outliers whose careless internal communications can be read to suggest a climate of corruption. Managers and colleagues should be alert to these transgressions and seek to halt them in their tracks.
More broadly, it’s critical for companies to adopt and instill a strong set of values that goes well beyond compliance to include an affirmative culture focused on creating value for all stakeholders. When employees are consistently living according to such a strong set of values, their daily communications will reflect them.
A release of such documents may well reveal proprietary information, but at least it should not suggest a climate of corruption. As Bill Margaritis suggested last week in his commentary on BloombergBusinessweek.com, fire prevention is much more effective than firefighting.