“The propensity to leak is stronger than the sex drive.”
— President George H. W. Bush
Anyone who has led an organization has felt the frustration of leaked information, be it confidential negotiations, planned personnel moves or even informal discussions. More than other setbacks, leaks frustrate leadership because they also trigger an emotional reaction, which is a sense of betrayal from someone connected to the organization with whom sensitive information has been entrusted. These breaches of trust can range from the distracting to the embarrassing to the debilitating; the latter becoming a serious crisis that can take key personnel away from their regular responsibilities to deal with the stakeholder and public fallout.
Within a college athletics department, this means taking time away from supporting student-athletes, meeting with donors or performing any of the other hundreds of daily tasks involved in representing and supporting an institution of higher learning. And while leaks cannot be stopped, they can be minimized and their impact lessened through both culture and how a department handles and distributes its information.
To better understand the causes and ramifications of the often anonymous and unplanned sharing of information, let us first examine why employees, staff or partners will leak information. While there are many reasons for leaking information, the main motivations generally fall into three categories.
The first is the personal advantage or quid pro quo leak. This is when someone shares information with an outsider, because they expect a favor in return, most likely in the form of something positive being said about them or their organization, or possibly a minimization of anything negative they may one day do. These will often be members of coaching staffs or others in the market whom the sports media also covers, such as professional teams or other colleges.
The second reason is usually payback for some real or perceived slight the person leaking feels they have received. This may be a recent decrease in responsibility or influence, being passed over for a project or promotion, falling off a tournament travel party or any other number of grievances. These often can be extremely damaging, as the person leaking is motivated to cast the information in the most negative light for the department.
Another major reason people will share sensitive information is to bolster their own image and credibility as someone important or “in the know.” These are often people in the department who toil behind the scenes or someone outside of the department, but closely connected, such as the booster who calls to brag to the local reporter he knows the identity of a coaching hire.
This type of leak occured when the University of Minnesota hired MBB Coach Richard Pitino. An in-the-know donor called local WCCO-TV sports anchor Mark Rosen to brag that he knew the hire’s identity and the anchor would never guess it. Rosen started throwing out names and the booster went silent when he heard Pitino, giving Rosen the news prior to the Minnesota’s announcement.
So now that we know why people will leak information, we can look at ways to manage the situation and minimize damage. Often people will say that a transparent athletic department need not fear leaks. Of course, this is naive, simplistic, and wrong. Think of all of the information that circulates through an athletic department each day, much of it sensitive and some of it legally protected as with student or employee data. Many of the things discussed each day will never be implemented and so if everything is shared it will result in a perpetual explanation loop.
And let’s be clear, transparency is not full disclosure. Transparency is disclosure of pertinent and relevant information in a clear and timely manner to allow various stakeholders a clear and honest view of an athletic department’s goals, values and culture.
To minimize the unauthorized release of sensitive information, there are a few steps that should be a matter of course in all dealings with the media and various audiences. Some basic best practices include:
Don’t Hold Negative Information Any Longer Than You Must
“Found news” is always more interesting to the media than “shared news” and the longer you try to hold it, the greater the chances of a leak. If the media “discover” a story, it will receive more prominent play than information that is publicly shared by your department. While communications pros have often advocated this approach, a recent study published in the Journal of Business Research supports this strategy. Sharing bad news first also increases the probability that your messages are in the very first reporting of the information, extremely critical in the age of digital reporting.
Share Sensitive Information with Staff Appropriately
Not everyone needs to know everything. While we would all rather be in the know, your best staff members also understand that some things cannot be shared. While you want to educate and bring as many people into a decision as possible, you have to weigh that against the potential damage to the department or University of sensitive information being shared prematurely. While good leaders want to share information with their people, the best leaders know what can and cannot be shared at any given time.
Communicate the Information You Can to Your Staff in a Timely Manner
As just discussed, your staff understands that there are things that cannot be shared widely at times, but they also expect to be communicated with when it is possible to do so. Share non-sensitive information with your staff regularly to reinforce an open culture and when you do share sensitive information publicly, share it with your staff simultaneously or just prior to public dissemination when possible.
Act Quickly Following a Leak
Don’t waste time trying to locate the source and keep your emotions out of it. There is a very short window to include your messages into the first round of reporting. You must quickly determine what you can legally and responsibly share and proactively communicate your message to the media as well as on your university’s social media sites directly to your stakeholders. Any time between the initial reporting on leaked information and your communications is time when only one side of the story is being reported to the public.
Cal Athletic Director Jim Knowlton can mobilize his Knowlton’s Notes page, usually an update to fans, to disseminate fast-breaking news to his most important stakeholders. This channel can be immediately updated and shared directly with key audiences and carried more widely by Cal’s other social media channels ensuring audiences are hearing it directly from Knowlton and his team, even if it was first leaked elsewhere.
Understand that You Are the Least Credible Source
Because of the “whistle blower nature” of leaked information, even when being done for the personal reasons shared above, the media and the public will view them as the more credible source, even when anonymous. All you can do is communicate honestly and as directly to your audiences as possible. If you have a track record of candor and forthrightness, your messages will get through.
Use Your Own Communications Channels to Preempt Reporting
A streamlined organization, aware that the media has a leak, can minimize damage by releasing it on its own social media sites, prominently sharing its own messages before the news media can post, air, print or otherwise report it. This will mean you control the first awareness of the news by many of your stakeholders potentially making it “old news” when the media reports it.
Don’t Blame the Media
While a natural reaction (again, emotion is your enemy here), blaming the messenger is counter-productive. The media is doing its job as it sees it and you want reporters to act responsibly and sans emotion, while also including your messages. Reporters and editors are human. Attacking them could lessen their willingness to include your message and even antagonize them into twisting the knife a bit.
Don’t Attack or Disparage the Source
Odds are you won’t know for certain who the leak is and the downside of lashing out is far greater than any upside. It is rare you will ever find a smoking gun, and even if you do, any punitive action will make you appear vengeful or vindictive. If you attempt to disparage an unknown source you may unknowingly be attacking someone with unassailable credibility or a colleague you have publicly praised only days before. Communicate truthfully and stick to the issue.
Above all, take emotion out of the process. While leaks can be personally hurtful, that is precisely when you are thinking least clearly. Treat each step of the process as you would other business and organizational decisions.
While you will never stop leaks entirely, you can minimize any real financial, reputational or organizational damage the premature or anonymous sharing of private or outright false information may cause.
Chris Werle is a consumer and sports marketing communications strategist with extensive experience in collegiate and professional athletics. He counsels collegiate athletic administrators and conferences, professional sports franchise executives, leagues and athletes, as well as some of the largest companies in the world on communications, marketing, sports activation and issues management. He can be reached at www.werleconsulting.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.