By Arthur Solomon
Shush! “It’s a secret. Don’t tell any one. It’s only between us.” Not any more it isn’t.
The recent Congressional hearings into the email exchanges between FBI agent Peter Strzok and FB I lawyer Lisa Page shows what I’ve always preached: If you want to keep a secret, don’t email, text, telephone or speak about it in an office. With today’s technology, there’s no sure-fire way of preventing other people from learning about your secrets.
Add to that the Mueller investigation indictments of Russian intelligence officials for hacking into Hillary Clinton supporters’ emails and the Senate Intelligence Committee’s bipartisan report that Russia meddled in the 2016 presidential election and there is a valuable lesson that PR practitioners should learn: Keeping anything secret is highly unlikely.
Nothing is Off the Record
As a newsman, before jumping the fence to the PR business, I would interrupt people who said, “This is off the record” by saying, “Anything you say to me is on the record. Don’t tell me anything you don’t want to see reported.
That’s because agreeing to off the record conversations might hinder me from reporting on information I obtained from another source.” As a PR person, I never offered off the record information.
Also as a PR practitioner, I always warned staffers who reported to me that there should be no discussions about client business outside of the office, including in restrooms or elevators.
Dos and Don’ts of Protecting Information
Here are some “dos and don’ts” that may protect secrets and should be practiced by all professionals in PR.
Emails: Never email anything that a client says is confidential to others in your agency. Walk it over to members of your team. If you have to relay the information to other offices, don’t do it via office mail or smartphones. Overnight the information.
Discussing confidential information: This should never be done in a setting with other people nearby, even members of your agency. Take a walk around the block and discuss it where nobody else can hear.
Your briefcase: It’s dangerous to carry confidential information in a briefcase filled with other documents. When you look through your briefcase, it’s easy for confidential information to fall out.
Marking an envelope confidential: There is no guarantee that the envelope will be opened only by the person for whom it was intended. Handwriting on the envelope “personal” is my preferred method.
Receiving confidential information by mistake: Don’t mention it to anyone in your organization. Instead, inform the individual who sent the information and let that individual dictate what should be done. Also, as soon as you see that the information wasn’t meant for you, stop reading it.
I once received by mistake a transcript of a telephone call between an executive of a client’s company and the governor of his state. I called the client and was told not to send it back by messenger. We arranged to meet and I personally returned it. In the many years I worked with that client the matter was never again discussed.
On public transportation: I once traveled by airplane to a client meeting to unveil a new program. When we were done with the presentation, our client told us to remain until we were questioned by a high-ranking corporate executive.
What happened was that we were on the same airplane with the executive and an advertising team from another agency that was presenting plans for a new product rollout. The ad team had discussed their plans on the plane, just one row ahead of the executive. Three different agencies were presenting that afternoon and the executive didn’t know which team was from the ad agency. When it was our turn to be questioned, we were told what happened, received an apology for detaining us and were told the penalty for discussing client information in public was to lose the account, which the ad agency did.
Think before you speak: This is a good rule to follow regardless of the situation. A national football writer told me about an incident that involved him and an NFL star quarterback, who didn’t think before speaking. The quarterback made disparaging comments to the reporter about another team, which ended up in a news article.
A few weeks later, the QB approached the reporter. Accompanied by two line backers, he said, “You’re the guy that caused me all that trouble by printing something I never said.”
“You did say it and I can prove it,” said my friend, who taped all his interviews. He pulled out a tape containing the quote and played it.
“Well, I didn’t mean to say it,” said the QB, as his teammates departed.
Early in my PR career, I worked on PR campaigns for a political PR firm then as a senior VP/senior counselor at Bruson-Marsteller and traveled frequently with high-ranking government officials as a media advisor. So protecting client information, even non-sensitive information, was always in my DNA.
The Danger of “Gotcha” Journalism
Today, because of the “gotcha” type of politics and journalism, it’s more important than ever to protect confidential data. The days of a reporter doing a favor by withholding damaging information have long past.
The days when off-the-record comments would remain off-the-record are also history. If off-the-record comments are important enough, they might be used immediately. And information that you thought was confidential might show up in future stories
My personal credo as a PR person is that information that you don’t want to be made public should never be discussed in public places and should only be distributed or discussed in-house on a “need to know” basis.
That’s a good rule to follow. But too often young PR practitioners are so proud of their contributions to client programs that I’ve heard them discussed while they were unwinding at the bar. They should be reminded of the World War 11 slogan, “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” — and maybe accounts.
Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.