So, You Have a Leak. What Now?

Last Friday, I thought I was done for the day. And then my phone rang. It was my mom. “There’s a leak in the bathroom,” she exclaimed. “What do I do?” Calmly (and maybe a bit sarcastically) I said, “Call a plumber?” With that answer I think my mother mumbled something like, “I knew I should have called your brother-in-law” and then she hung up.

My brother-in-law wasn’t home so a plumber was called. After the leak was fixed, he told my mom it could have been prevented if a rusting thingamabob had been replaced earlier.

Preventative measures in plumbing. Of course, my mom hadn’t crawled under the sink recently and never saw the rusting valve, but the idea caught my attention.

Leaks are inevitable, so checking the pipes every now and again is a pretty good idea. But leaks also happen in the pipeline of corporate communications. Most can be predicted and planned for, but how often do we take the right preventative measures to ensure they don’t?

When there’s a major announcement to be made, we focus most of our attention on getting the news out. Which stakeholders need to be briefed first? When do we tell our employees? Who will our spokespeople be? When do we take the news to the media? The idea that we could lose control of the announcement rarely becomes part of the planning process. And that lack of preparation can cause real damage.

The following six best practices may give you the “tools” you need to prevent having to mop up company news after it’s spilled out of your control:

Ws of effective communications. Who will care about your news? What messages do they need to hear? When does the news need to be communicated. Where will the news be shared? Why will your audience care? The answers could uncover where a leak may happen. For example, do senior executives need to know before anyone else? If so, a leak could start right there.

Reflecting on human behavior. When was the last time you heard big news and were told to keep it to yourself? Was that easy? Did you feel compelled to whisper the news to a friend, a spouse, a co-worker? Too often we underestimate the impulses of human nature and assume that a request to keep breaking news confidential will be honored. When we assume confidences will be kept, well… we all know what happens when we assume.  

Embargo. If your news is big enough to cause an external stir if it leaked, then the best prevention is to embargo the story in advance with an influential media outlet. Doing so can allow you to frame the story on your terms – a leaked story is usually more sensational than accurate. If a leak takes place before the story was planned to be released, be ready to call the reporter and get your story out there as fast as you can.  

NDA. When major news needs to be communicated, it’s easy to follow a strategy of circling the wagons internally. Key internal stakeholders get briefed, but too often the communications team can be overmatched by the magnitude of a big announcement. Getting the help of an outside point of view, such as your agency partner (one under NDA) can help identify where problems might arise.

Customers and clients. When a leak happens the first inclination is to put out the fire with the media. But don’t forget that the media is just a channel to reach your most important audience: your clients and customers. They’re the ones who need to hear from you right away, so get a note out or better yet get messages out to key points of contact so they can pick up the phone and share the news personally.

Holding statements. This last one sounds like a no brainer, but it’s often overlooked because, like my mom, we typically don’t think about a leak happening until it’s too late. Often a holding statement says little more than “we don’t comment on rumor or speculation,” but depending on the nature of the leak that may sound disingenuous (remember there are stakeholders that will start drawing conclusions based on what they’ve heard or read in a leaked story), so say as much as you can to ensure your audience is drawing the right conclusions and correct and significant inaccuracies that may be out there. If you haven’t put an embargoed story in place in advance, your holding statement may be your only line of defense until you can take the news cycle back.

Getting back to my mom, she doesn’t own a wrench, but now she knows who to call at the first sign of trouble. The plumber’s number is taped to her refrigerator door. When you have a leak or think you might – who are you going to call?

By Ken Kerrigan

Photo by Luis Quintero via Pexels