How Do You Keep Your Secrets From the Media?

When the CEO of the world’s #2 bank says there is no such thing as an “off the record” Top Secret Stamp remark to the media, you can take it as gospel.

Jamie Dimon, CEO and chairman of JPMorgan Chase, recently spoke to 200+ members and guests of the Financial Women’s Association. When he was introduced, the audience was clearly told that his remarks were off the record. Mr. Dimon smiled and got a lot of laughs when he cracked “there is no such thing as off the record.”

Watch What You Say

He should know. He’s probably been interviewed and misquoted in the press as often as any CEO during the financial crisis of 2008 and the Bank’s own scandal when a rogue trader called the “London Whale” lost $6 billion for the firm.

No doubt members of the audience were taking notes and tweeting during the whole time he was talking. We all know where the media now gets much of its information – Twitter. A Twitter account @evleaks with the tag line “Today’s news, yesterday” specializes in reporting on leaks.

But even Mr. Dimon has to keep some secrets from the media, like discussions about the appointment of Marianne Lake to the Bank’s CFO position earlier this year. As the moderator, she lobbed questions at Mr. Dimon during the no-holds-barred discussion.

A search of the web didn’t uncover any rumors of her appointment. Mr. Dimon said he discussed candidates for the position with the business unit leaders, yet there were no apparent leaks.

Mum’s the Word

How do you keep secrets from the media? First, restrict the breaking news to an inner circle of people involved in the issue who can be trusted not to become an “unnamed source” for leaks. Beautiful young woman calls for silence

Many companies planning IPOs or introducing new products use code names during the long process before public disclosure. You don’t want to dilute the impact by seeing your story on the news on the day before the announcement.

Apple famously uses code words for its new products. Dulcimer morphed into the iconic iPod when it was launched in 2001. Wikipedia lists dozens of Apple code names.

In every situation, both insiders and outside consultants and vendors should be required to sign non-disclosure agreements. Outsiders should not even mention they are working for the company, much less on a new product or an IPO.

A high-profile investor relations firm announcing it has signed a new client could signal that something is brewing at the company. Reporters will start digging and may strike gold.

If you’re part of the inner circle, don’t talk about the secret project in the elevator or in the hallways. The walls have ears. Any passerby could hear a few key words and – boom – the secret is out.

No doubt Samsung wasn’t very happy that the story – and photo – of its new curved smart phone was leaked prior to the launch.

Of course, companies aren’t above leaking information themselves. Movie studios are notorious for doing this when a long-anticipated movie is expected to bomb. They book the stars on talk shows to drum up interest and attendance before the movie’s release.

The End of the Embargo

It wasn’t that long ago that PR people would distribute a release with an embargo – a future date that the media could report on the story. That’s gone the way of the manual typewriter. With the 24-hour news cycle, every media outlet is competing fiercely to be the first to break the news.

Never share your secrets with reporters except in rare situations. Possibly the reporter has been covering your company for years. He has shown that he can be trusted not to break a story if he’s given information “on background.” Again, that is rare these days.

What About a Leak?

Despite your best efforts, the story may get out. You are restricted about what you can say regarding an IPO. Follow the government’s disclosure rules about how to respond.

A reporter may call with a rumor about a new product release. You don’t have to spill the beans. You could respond, “We’re always testing new product ideas. I don’t have anything to report. You’ll be the first to know if that changes.”

You have an obligation to keep your company’s secrets. Just remember to keep your promise to that reporter when the time comes to break the news.

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