Why Employees Leak to Media and What You Can Do About it

It’s been a bit of a bumpy ride at Yahoo lately. After the company rejected a $45 billion dollar offer from Microsoft last year, the company’s stock plummeted, thousands of employees were laid off. Eventually, Jerry Yang, Yahoo’s co-founder and CEO, was forced to step aside.

Carol Bartz has been named to head the company and she is in the middle of a massive reorganization. Clearly she has her work cut out for herself. There are still rumors of a deal with Microsoft, but there is no firm announcement and Yahoo is losing market share according to recent numbers.

In the middle of all of this change, Ms. Bartz, dubbed her Hurricane Carol by supportive colleagues, has expressed her frustration that Yahoo’s employees have leaked details of her plans to media. (She seemed particularly upset that employees leaked a farewell memo from departing Corporate Communications head Jill Nash within hours of it being sent.)

In an email to all employees, Bartz offered a half-way joking suggestion to stop the leaks: award a weekly $1,000 bounty to employees who turn in colleagues who do the leaking. (By the way, Bartz’s employee email offering this suggestion was leaked, too. )

In my opinion, Ms. Bartz is missing the point that Kara Swisher of AllThingsD.com discussed with me in a Twitter conversation about the problem of leaks at Yahoo. We agreed that if Bartz fixed the larger management issues facing the company, the leaks would subside.

That said, Ms. Bartz’s frustration is understandable and familiar to any media relations or employee communications professional who works for a large, well-known organization.

In my experience and after talking with reporter friends of mine — they leaked to me  — I’ve concluded that employees leak confidential information to members of the media for three main reasons:

  • They don’t have confidence in management and they would like to see a new team in place or the current team improve.
  • They want to blow the whistle on waste fraud and abuse. (This happens in government frequently and in my view it should in these cases.)
  • They working in a turbulent environment where they control very little. Sharing information outside the company is a way to reassert control. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Yahoo’s leaks have increased as they’ve laid off employees.)

As a corporate communications professional, here’s what I’d recommend to you to help manage the problem at your business or organization:

  • If you’re in employee communications:
    • Assume that all your employee communications will be leaked to media and advise your management team accordingly.
    • Think carefully about what information you share with your all-employee audience as well as the timing of when you share it.
    • Think of your Intranet as the competition to the newspapers, blogs and broadcast outlets which cover your company. If employees see your internal communications channels as credible, reliable and timely, that’s where their ears and eyes will be. (This is even more the case if your Intranet or internal corporate blogs are places where employees can constructively criticize your company and its management without career consequences.)
    • Look at a leaking problem as an employee communications problem. Do your employees get news about the company from the company first? Do you use social media to create a internal forum where employees can freely share their ideas and opinions about the company and how to improve it? 
  • If you’re in media relations:
    • Collaborate with your employee communications colleagues so you issue your news releases of major news items to employees simultaneously. Then employees hear the news from the company first.
    • Don’t be defensive when a reporter contacts you seeking to confirm information that was leaked to them, instead offer additional information to provide context. The best journalists are ones who look at their job as one of trying to solve a puzzle. Sometimes giving them an additional piece of the puzzle helps put the leaked information into context.
    • If employees choose to comment anonymously on blogs about your company, offer your own comments to the conversation so readers of the blogs understand the company’s perspective. In your comments, include your name, title and email. Your transparency adds to your credibility and news outlets — at least the ones I talked to — welcome your participation in the blog chat.
  • If you’re an executive with concerns about your employee leaks:
    • Take Kara Swisher’s advice to Carol Bartz at Yahoo. Fix the problems that are causing employees to be upset. That won’t resolve the leaking issue entirely, but it will help minimize it
    • Recognize that sometimes leaks are good for your company. For example, leaks about the iPhone drove media  speculation and consumer interest before AT&T and Apple launched the device.
    • Recognize that not all leaks come from your rank-and-file employees. Reporters tell me that they get information from board members, executive recruiters, law firms and Wall Street advisers working on mergers and acquisitions, employees of hotels and restaurants where confidential meetings take place, company vendors as well as competitors.

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