When I jumped from the newsroom to the world of crisis communication, I consciously and resolutely gave up the principle of the public’s right to know.
I regularly get client information that would make front-page news. It’s the nature of what crisis communicators do, and upholding clients’ trust and keeping secrets give us ongoing credibility and ensure we’ll be kept on as trusted advisors.
But are there circumstances in which confidential information must
be leaked in the interest of public good? And what do you do when you have a rogue employee who violates well-established nondisclosure rules and blabs client secrets to the media?
Enter Booz Allen Hamilton staffer Edward Snowden. The 29-year-old employee, who started his job with the firm just three months earlier, took responsibility for an international media storm by leaking top-secret documents outlining the NSA’s surveillance of Americans and foreigners. The NSA hired Booz Allen Hamilton as a contractor, and, in fact, most of its business comes from government contracts.
It’s a worst-case scenario for Booz Allen and brings into question the firm’s security measures, hiring practices, and overall credibility. To the firm’s credit, it promptly fired Snowden and expressed appropriate outrage.
“News reports that this individual has claimed to have leaked classified information are shocking, and, if accurate, this action represents a grave violation of the code of conduct and core values of our firm,” its statement
reads. “We will work closely with our clients and authorities in their investigation of this matter.”
The statement, though well crafted, didn’t stop the online outrage against Booz Allen:
We have to assume that Snowden weighed the consequences of the leak, knowing that it would wipe out any future employment opportunities and would damage Booz Allen Hamilton’s reputation and business for years to come. Plus, he faces a future living in Iceland to avoid prosecution.
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For Booz Allen, the leak means it will have to overhaul its hiring process and show the public and its government clients that this is indeed an isolated incident. Firing Snowden is only the first step.
Booz Allen must first and foremost reassure its clients that their secrets are safe. Plus there’s going to be a trickle-down for other consulting firms dealing with sensitive government secrets. The U.S. government is likely to conduct an audit of its external contractors, as well as examining its reliance on outside firms.
Any informed observer has to realize that clients, including the government, keep secrets and that often times the less the public knows, the better. Regarding the Snowden leak, is anyone truly surprised—other than the media—that the U.S. government is reviewing phone records as part of a national security program?
For Booz Allen, it can’t be a matter of degree. A leak is a leak—and that must be addressed. Its business depends on it.
Gil Rudawsky heads the crisis communication and issues management practice at GroundFloor Media in Denver. He is a former reporter and editor. Read his blog or contact him at email@example.com.