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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” comment to the media, you can take it as gospel.

Not so long ago, Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, addressed 200+ members and guests of the Financial Women’s Association. When he was introduced, the audience was clearly told that his comments were in off the record. Mr. Dimon grinned and got a great deal 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 regularly as any CEO during the financial crisis of 2008 and his Bank’s own outrage 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 entire time he was talking. We all know where the media now gets a lot of its data – Twitter. A Twitter account @evleaks with the slogan “Today’s news, yesterday” specializes in reporting leaks.

But even Mr. Dimon needs to keep some secrets from the media, like discussions about the appointment of a woman as the new bank CFO. The FWA moderator lobbed questions at Mr. Dimon during the no-holds-barred discussion that followed his remarks.

A search of the web didn’t reveal any bits of gossip about the CFO appointment. Mr. Dimon said he discussed candidates for for the position with the business unit leaders, yet there were no apparent leaks.

Mum’s the Word

How do you keep privileged insights from the media? To start with, restrict the breaking news to an inner circle of people involved with the issue who can be trusted to not turn into an “anonymous source” for leaks.

Many organizations arranging 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 preceding the announcement.

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

In each 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 reporting it has signed a new client could signal that something is brewing at the company. Journalists will begin digging and may strike gold.

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

No doubt Samsung wasn’t very happy that the story – and photograph – of its new curved phone was leaked before the launch.

Of course, organizations 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 film’s release.

The End of the Embargo

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

Never share your insider facts with reporters except in rare situations. Probably 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 data “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 about 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 need to let the cat out of the bag. You could respond, “We’re always testing new item products. I don’t have anything to report. You’ll be the first to know if that changes.”

You have a obligation 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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