Coping with WikiLeaks Article icon


It is a new version of an old communications nightmare. Hundreds of thousands of your company's emails and confidential reports are posted anonymously on the Internet.

The leaks are encrypted so it is tricky to find the culprit, while the websites get around secrecy laws and injunctions by having multiple mirror sites worldwide.

As you ponder the options, there's a media tumult. The press want to know why a discarded idea of merging with your arch-rival and sacking 20,000 staff was never even announced. And why did your chief executive call the Prime Minister an idiot in an internal memo?

It's a nightmare that has become reality for government communicators with the phased leaking of more than 251,000 confidential diplomatic cables from 274 embassies on the WikiLeaks' website.

Injudicious remarks about the Middle East, nuclear disarmament and key public figures caused security concerns and widespread embarrassment.

Separately, last month's overthrow of Tunisia's president was partly attributed to WikiLeaksan upswelling against corruption revealed in cables leaked on WikiLeaks.

It is not an exaggeration therefore to talk about the power of WikiLeaks in a revolutionary context and its next target is the corporate sector.

WikiLeaks' founder Julian Assange claimed in 2009 that he had five gigabytes of data from Bank of America. He then told Forbes Magazine last year that WikiLeaks was planning a 'megaleak' early in 2011 involving a 'big US bank' and revealing an 'ecosystem of corruption' that could 'take down a bank or two'. Bank of America's share price fell by three per cent on the news.

Last month Assange took receipt of data allegedly containing offshore bank account details of up to 2,000 wealthy individuals and corporations from Rudolf Elmer, a former employee at Swiss private bank Julius Baer.

So what can communicators do to mitigate the nightmare of being WikiLeaked? At one end of the spectrum, Bank of America is rumoured to have a team of 20 lawyers, senior communicators and investigators working on strategies in case Assange's threats become reality. 'Unfortunately we would not comment on our internal processes,' says Scott Silvestri, senior vice president for corporate media relations.

At the other extreme is Andrew Grant, chief executive of financial public relations agency Tulchan Communications. 'If someone is about to put your inner-most secrets on WikiLeaks, I'm not sure what you can do about it,' he says. 'I'm not sure there's a public relations strategy for that really. I'm just not certain that there's anything that will stop it happening.'

An unconventional approach

It's true that the conventional structures for combating media disclosures may not be so effective in the WikiLeaks era.

Jonathan Collett, director of communications at the Press Complaints Commission, says the media watchdog can take action before, as well as after, publication if people feel there has been a breach of its code of practice, which covers reporting methods as well as subterfuge, manipulation and harassment.

The Commission can issue notices to editors before publication or offer informal advice but its role is limited to newspapers and magazines.

'We don't have any control over what is put on WikiLeaks itself,' confirms Collett. 'Where we would step in is where a news channel is using it in a way that's contrary to our Code but it's not something that's an issue for the PCC at this stage.'

A legal route is possible. Initially, there were problems with obtaining court orders requiring material to be removed from WikiLeaks because it was difficult to know where they should be served, but Assange's higher profile has eased that problem, while the traditional reluctance to include unpublished material in court orders without knowing its precise contents may also be tested.

Dan Tench, litigation partner at law firm Olswang, says: 'It is difficult with WikiLeaks but I think there is a possible legal strategy. You have to move very quickly, seek adventurous court orders and find a means of serving them but this is a possibility.'

James Henderson, chief executive of Pelham Bell Pottinger, says: 'The legal route is a good route if you can succeed. But if you don't, you have to deal with the media consequences of having been seen to try to suppress it. You have to be able to counterbalance the two. Thereafter, it just becomes a regular piece of crisis communications public relations.'

A legal response?

That's not straightforward, however, and financial and corporate communications agency The Maitland Consultancy recently saw fit to issue an advisory note to clients.

The five-page document advises clients to focus on what has been leaked, forming a small dedicated team of lawyers and communicators to sift through the mass of documents.

After ascertaining what is new to the public domain, Maitland advises clients to discern what needs to be formally disclosed in response to the leak, through discussions with their regulators in the countries where they operate as well as with lawyers and corporate brokers.

The pamphlet advises clients against taking legal action, recommending that they make a regulatory statement and prepare a media script and warning that It is imperative that strategy rather than panic dictates the response. 'Careful crisis planning will be essential,' it states. 'Many of the potential scenarios can be played out before the crisis occurs so that a company is well prepared. Failure to be well prepared could make a very bad situation worse.'

As for the PR response itself, strategies range widely. 'You have to fight fire with fire and you have to do it with speed, transparency and authenticity,' says Maitland chief executive Neil Bennett.

'You have to respond very quickly, accepting the fact that you cannot obfuscate. You have to look for the individual who has been doing the leaking and take direct action against them. Leaking something to WikiLeaks is, in many countries, both a criminal offence and a serious breach of contract so I think you need to respond proportionately.'

That works for the other end of the scale too, argues Charlie Methven, managing director of corporate, City and political communications consultants New Century Media. He says most current corporate WikiLeaks concern companies that are mentioned en passant in something else.

An example is WikiLeaks' publication in December of a leaked diplomatic cable sent in September 2008 in the name of former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It suggested that America had used backstage diplomatic manoeuvres to help block the appointment of Iranian scientist Dr Mostafa Jafari to a key position on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Dr Rajendra Pachauri, the panel's chairman and New Century's client, denies this allegation but Methven's advice was to hold his silence, arguing that the story, which was picked up by The Daily Telegraph, was unlikely to go further.

'The interesting thing is that there was no follow-up of the story at all,' he says. 'There's so much on WikiLeaks that quite often these stories don't get followed up. If you don't say anything at all, the likelihood is that it will be buried under an avalanche of other information on WikiLeaks and newspapers will lose interest because it wasn't their scoop.'

However, that's not likely to be the case with 'marquee leaks', which Maitland believes are likely to continue to be WikiLeaks' strategy.

Information overload

'One could easily imagine a situation where the vast majority of documents leaked are just vaguely interesting internal memo and emails,' says Maitland partner Anthony Silverman. 'But included in that might be references to proposed transactions of the board's intentions regarding remuneration or even individual staff members.

'The outcome of such a leak could be that the market is misled, competitors have far greater insight, employees are put in direct conflict with their employer and in future directors are prevented from expressing their true opinions for fear of future leaks. In other words, it would fundamentally alter the way businesses communicate internally.'

Indeed, Alex Woolfall, Bell Pottinger's head of issues and crisis management, goes so far as to warn that the danger of WikiLeaks may reverse the trend from handwritten to typed internal reporting and communications.

However, what makes dealing with WikiLeaks different from normal crisis management public relations is the sheer volume and apparent authenticity of material it publishes.

Some experts say this calls for a highly proactive approach, such as the 'stealing thunder' tactic of disclosing negative information before WikiLeaks does, based on research that claims that people react less negatively to a crisis when the organisation itself releases the information.

This involves risks in deciding what to disclose in a pre-emptive release. If you guess wrongly, WikiLeaks' bluff may prompt unnecessary reputational damage or embarrassment, while this strategy could also encourage the belief that you really do have something to hide.

Nevertheless, Ross Gow, founder of reputation management public relations consultancy Acuity Reputation, says: 'The best defence for any company that's sensitive about how it is perceived by the public, partners, associates and other stakeholders has to be proactive.

'If only one side of the story is being told about you, that's the story people will believe. So undertake combative tactics to undermine the credibility of the author or leaker of the material.

'Question their rationale and cast doubt on their motives and leverage the seven propaganda devices.'

Gow defines these as name-calling, glittering generality (using terms that have different positive meanings), transfer (linking feelings for unrelated subjects), testimonials (counter-balancing endorsements), card-stacking (selective omission), plain folks (presenting views as those of the common person) and bandwagon (convincing people to join the 'winning' side).

These and other tools are clearly being used against Assange, who has had a Swedish rape investigation reopened, and against WikiLeaks, which has had bank and server facilities withdrawn.

Whistleblowing is fashionable

However, even if such attempts succeed, new whistleblower sites such as OpenLeaks and Rospil have cropped up, while Localeaks, an initiative from New York's Columbia University has produced an online form for people to send anonymous tips to 1,400 North American newspapers.

A different approach involves using search engine optimisation techniques to make leaks on such sites harder to find.

Black search engine optimisation and auto link generation tricks include managing the appearance of information on the Internet by creating lots of additional content that relegates the leaked data to a lowly ranking on Google.

This can be problematic as Google keeps an active watch for such manipulation. 'It's not something I see as a good thing,' says Jonathan Hawker, managing director of issues, crises and litigation at strategic communications agency Financial Dynamics. 'If it's on WikiLeaks, someone's going to see it.'

Another problem with such proactive responses is that they can be interpreted as seeking to protect privileged positions, rather than engage with a new world order empowered by the democratisation of the web.

'Asymmetry looks like WikiLeaks,' says Alan Moore, founder of technology and innovation consultancy SMLX. 'It destroys the last vestiges of the notion that you are in control. 'Unless you are prepared to engage with the world around you in a manner that is transparent and responsible, you may find yourself inside a perfect storm that will destroy your credibility and your business in a timeframe that will take your breath away 'WikiLeaks is a response to organisations, corporates and governments who wilfully abuse their position and are now feeling the pinch of the powerless. Remember Julian Assange has to get his information from somewhere.'

Others therefore prefer to focus on the communications themselves. 'The best approach,' says Hawker, 'is to install a robust issues management policy in your business so that issues management becomes part of your business. You look at problems as they come up and try to address them, rather than try to sweep them under the carpet.'

Malcolm Gooderham, managing director of strategic communications consultancy TLG, agrees. 'Organisations get into trouble not because of issues themselves but because of the way they handle them,' he says. 'Often, companies try to smother information that pops up like this, which tends to ignite the situation and make it worse. Companies can do their brands a lot of good by having a measured response. If you do that, most people will remember the communications rather than the leak.'

Tackling WikiLeaks

Know what is known: Assign a small team of communicators and lawyers to read through the leaked documents methodically, note what is included and assess its significance.

Deal with disclosure: Once you know what has been leaked, consult your relevant regulators in the jurisdictions affected as well as your lawyers and corporate brokers to decide whether any formal disclosure as a result of the leak is necessary.

Assess the legal options: Take advice on what legal moves are possible and how effective they will be. Act speedily to give yourself the option of a legal challenge.

Frame a response: Draft a regulatory statement, if required, and a closely-related media script. Plan the media response, preparing for potential scenarios.