Plugging Holes: How to Manage the Message When News Leaks

By: Nikki Little

News leaks have rocketed to the proverbial “front page” as one of the hottest communications topics of 2017. Just yesterday, the Detroit Free Press reported that a new Detroit Pistons logo may have leaked due to the premature posting of a new clothing item on the organization’s online store.

While small to mid-size companies may not face the same types of leaks as the United States government or large sports organizations, it’s still possible that major business decisions or announcements could make their way to the media or public ahead of schedule.

The registration of a new website domain or the filing of government paperwork can signal the announcement of a new project. An internal (and confidential) memo sent to employees announcing a policy change or shift in leadership can easily make its way to social media channels. An excited executive shows off a new concept to an existing client, which gets industry insiders talking. The reality is that a leak can come from anywhere.

The good news: businesses can institute several best practices to ensure their next big announcements remain a secret until the right time… or be better prepared to reign in the message should the news get out. So, where do we start?

Auditing and Planning
First, let’s try to plug possible news leaks before they happen. Start by running an audit around the potential for leaks—and don’t concentrate solely on the media. Consider the sources of leaked information and their likelihood of contributing to a premature announcement (you can even rank them by risk). Special considerations should be given to larger and more complex announcements that will likely expose information to additional employees and teams during the planning phase.

An important best practice is to always try and limit the news to as few individuals as possible. As more people are pulled into the mix prior to the announcement, organizations need to walk a very fine line between limiting the exposure of the information and putting the right elements in place to ensure operational continuity. It’s critical to time employee communications in line with public announcements. Explain to your internal and external stakeholders the importance of keeping the news under wraps until the time is right, so everyone understands the plan at hand, and require non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) if needed.

Looking beyond an organization’s employees, consider the risk exposure related to vendors or partners that may be privy to confidential information before it makes its way to the public. From a media perspective, it’s important to know which media is likely to sniff around to find the story.

Once the audit is complete, your team should discuss a plan of action should the story get leaked before you’re ready to announce. We love to plan for the best case scenario, but we can’t ignore the action items that need to be in place if the announcement gets out ahead of schedule.

Regaining Control of a Leaked Announcement
Let’s move on to the fun part. Say your company conducts the proper discussions beforehand with the team and partners involved, but the story still gets leaked. What should you consider to regain control of the announcement, triage the damage that’s been done and maximize what’s left of the spotlight around your story?

Likely, there will still be internal audiences—including employees or business partners—who have not been brought up to speed on the big news. In an effort to maintain control of the internal announcement, your team should have communications ready to fire off at a moment’s notice to the appropriate people. This way, no one feels blindsided. Keep in mind that in our tech-driven world, it may be more convenient to shoot out an email communication, but sometimes, picking up the phone and making a call is much more effective.

If the announcement impacts key clients or partners, it’s worth reaching out to them one-on-one as well to share your excitement, or reassure them that business will continue as usual if required.

Determining a New Course of Action
After a leak, the meat of your original media strategy is most likely null and void. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t tweak what remains of the program. Not only should you have a plan to distribute the now-public news to the broader media, but also determine if it makes sense to schedule an interview or press conference to regain control. In the event an interview or press conference was already scheduled, you may need to change the timing accordingly to align with the altered timeline, as well as have a prepared statement that specifically addresses the leak if needed.

Saving the Exclusive Story and Protecting Media Relationships
If the original plan was to offer the news announcement as an exclusive to a key media contact, it is crucial you immediately connect with the journalist. Is there something else that wasn’t in the leaked story that you can still give them to add value? Is there a follow-up announcement you can give them exclusivity on to salvage the relationship?

Relationships with the media could be in jeopardy if your news leaks before the time indicated on your plan, so it’s critical to reach out to your contacts and make sure that this leak won’t put you in a bad spot moving forward. Leaks happen, and your media partners will be much more understanding if you proactively reach out to explain the situation, helping to preserve your relationship for future stories.

In the end, your story is only as good as your announcement execution—so be sure you and your team are prepared to react just in case your rollout doesn’t go according to plan.