Inside the Profession

WikiLeaks’ Forced Transparency: Implications for Business

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Editor’s Note: The following is an abridged version of a blog post by James Donnelly, a PRSA member and senior vice president of crisis management at Ketchum.  The full post — with updates and interesting dialogue through the “comments” section — can be found here.

The recent WikiLeaks disclosures of a quarter-million confidential American diplomatic cables sent ripples through nearly every corner of government, media, business and elsewhere. Just wait until the next batch of disclosures occur. We know that corporate leaks are coming. Businesses had better be ready.

Implications of future WikiLeaks disclosures (as well as the eventual copycats it will spawn) are far reaching. It’s probably far too soon to have a firm handle on all of the effects. Thus, what follows are initial thoughts on implications (based on some perspectives captured through links throughout.)

Unchecked power. Assange and his team have the sole power to hit “publish” or to ignore what they receive. Only they know when that button will be pushed. There are many moral hazards here:

  • WikiLeaks can move markets. What is to stop WikiLeaks team members — or friends-of-friends — from shorting stocks a day or two before a major leak?
  • WikiLeaks is not accountable. Assange is shadowy; the people who work for him have yet to cast even a shadow. If they cause undue harm, what happens? They shrug? One writer in The Economist calls the recent release a “poor editorial decision” and recommends “an ethical review board.” Was the decision editorial? By what measures would a review board hold this group accountable?
  • Who died and made Assange boss? Should one person or organization have the power to damage governments or corporations based on a singular view of what is and is not just?

Bias. All people and organizations carry a bias. A peek into the bias that may have motivated Assange to create WikiLeaks should provide no comfort to any organization.

Repercussions of unprofessionalism. Some coverage of WikiLeaks does not exactly inspire confidence that this organization can responsibly handle its own load.

  • Sloppiness. In this article in The Wall Street Journal, we learn that the WikiLeaks people can be sloppy:  in just two hours of searching the Times of London found specific information on Afghan informants despite Assange’s assertion that documents were withheld to keep people from harm.
  • Stretched? Faced with additional criticism from human rights groups on the situation, Assange asked for their help in redacting documents. Thus, we’ve also learned that WikiLeaks may not have ample resources.

Public vs. private sector. As WikiLeaks moves its crosshairs from governments to corporations, we need to be mindful of the differences between secret/confidential information between the two sectors.

Of course, these implications are just the tip of the iceberg. Watch this space.

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James Donnelly


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