Anything written inside an organization should be treated as if it could quickly go public.
Today, the danger is not just that employees can forward materials to external audiences with a simple keystroke. Hackers can also find and release damaging internal correspondence and documents. There has, perhaps, never been a greater premium on the “propriety” aspect of “proprietary information.”
So, what are the best ways to lessen the potential negative impacts of your internal communications going external?
1. Work to eliminate both accidental and intentional leaks. Make sure you invest in secure communications systems and training (don’t assume your employees know better than to click that “reset password” link in that shady email), and create a corporate culture that values your staff.
As my AP History teacher repeated ad nauseum, “Happy people don’t revolt.” The better you treat your employees, and the more they feel invested in your company or organization, the less likely they will act to hurt it.
2. Treat every piece of internal communication as if it were external. Ask yourself: “Would I be OK if this email went public?” There is an understandable temptation to tell employees more than you would want the public to know about a situation. Though transparency is key, it’s important to realize the risks of sharing sensitive information digitally. Assume that anyone reading the email will leak it to social media, or the private speech you’re giving to your team is secretly being videoed.
For your most sensitive communications, consider face-to-face meetings, or phone calls, instead of putting it in writing. While there is a greater risk of someone misunderstanding you, the added security is usually worth it.
There will be times, for legal and other reasons, that you will have to put sensitive materials in writing. Work twice as hard in those situations to write them in such a way that the reasons for your actions or decisions are laid out. If you are writing that you will be having layoffs, then you’ll need to make the case for why you are doing it in every correspondence.
Taking an action that won’t be popular requires laying out what the situation is, what your other options were, and how you plan to mitigate its damage.
3. Ensure your timing is airtight. Your employees need to hear your news — especially bad news — before the public does. You don’t want them to learn about something you’re doing through a reporter’s tweet or a call from a friend who was watching cable news. However, once your employees do hear it, you should assume it will go public soon. Strategically time your announcements to the public so the media learns about it shortly after your employees do. If the internal email goes out at 10:30 a.m., for instance, then the press release should go out at 10:35 a.m.
Failure to handle the timing right can hurt your public image. For example, UCLA basketball coach Steve Alford learned he had been fired by hearing about it on TV. Along with this being cruel, it shows both disorganization and a lack of compassion.
In the end, employees have a right to know what is going on and how it is going to affect them, as well as what is expected of them in response. It’s paramount for management to handle their internal communications with the care and consideration they give to external communications.
After all, every sensitive internal message is one savvy hacker or disgruntled worker away from the whole world knowing.
To read more about employee communications, check out our March issue of Strategies & Tactics.
Ken Scudder has provided media training, presentation training, crisis communications training and consulting, as well as writing and editing, to business leaders, celebrities and politicians for more than 20 years. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, kenscudder.com, or follow @kenscudder on Twitter.