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Opinion: Corporate Secrecy, Meet WikiLeaks

Dec 13, 2010 – 5:40 AM
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Gary McCormick

Special to AOL News
(Dec. 13) -- Much has been said about the impact WikiLeaks will have in reshaping how governments and corporations think about safeguarding information. But the simplest way to sum up global sentiment might be "shattering."

As in, shattering to the concept that information can remain secure or confidential. Shattering to whatever scrap of optimism we still held that nine years after the collapse of Enron, a summer removed from Toyota's folly and just a few months past the disaster of the BP oil spill, corporate America had finally taken to heart what my colleagues in public relations have been telling it for years:

Transparency and full public disclosure from companies are a must.

WikiLeaks has thrown governments and corporations into an international anxiety attack. Forbes pushed this even further when it published a cover story revealing that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has corporations as the aim of his next major attack.

Perhaps this shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone who has closely followed the motivations of Assange and his team. Part of WikiLeaks' founding mission reads: "... we also expect to be of assistance to people of all regions who wish to reveal unethical behavior in their governments and corporations."

All of which means we're in for a very interesting 2011.

The coming year will see corporate America attempting to manage the "gotcha!" whims of transient whistle-blower organizations that don't play by conventional rules of engagement. These are groups that can outsmart and outrun even the best of a business's high-tech security measures. CEOs will never again know if, or when, an assault on their company's reputation is coming, or who from within is spilling the proverbial beans.

Newsday columnist Ellis Henican put this new reality into perspective, noting that, "In this age of a million websites, you will never stop the secrets from flowing once they seep out ..."

For the concerned and fretting CEO, there is some hope.

Viewing WikiLeaks as an enemy threat would be a mistake. Instead, it should be seen as an opportunity; a global call to action for CEOs to transparently present their full and honest side of the story. This is true at nearly every point in history, but certainly no more relevant than in the current climate of public skepticism.

Revelations of WikiLeaks' shifting focus comes on the heels of recent comments that Carl-Henric Svanberg, BP's embattled chairman, gave to the Financial Times, where he vowed to instill a "higher degree of disclosure" within the company now that the Deepwater Horizon oil spill has moved from corporate crisis to ongoing cleanup.

As a public relations professional, I find it a rather bizarre notion that after the fact -- after a crisis -- a company can seemingly try to erase all ill-will against it in the public and media's eyes by vowing to be more honest or more transparent or to display a greater degree of disclosure.

In reality, this all-out focus on corporate transparency should have been in place for decades, without the need to publicize the effort. If the WikiLeaks dumps have taught us anything, it's that the public has an insatiable thirst for knowledge, even of seemingly mundane facts.

Reactive management of a company's reputation represents an outdated model of crisis communications -- one that certainly won't work in managing a WikiLeaks-type attack. It stems from a misguided belief that any bad news can be mitigated with enough messaging, calls for internal investigations and TV appearances where the CEO is seen in the heart of the action, making sure things are getting done, when they seemingly weren't before the mess.

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Compound that with the fact that the same crisis can resurface and be publicized months, or even years, later through a simple Internet search that has no ties to the messaging and appearances by the CEO.

The news is never dead, nor is the story ever truly closed.

So what can a CEO do to proactively manage his company's reputation in the WikiLeaks Age? This may sound clichéd, but it's been proven to be immensely effective, time and again: Be as transparent as possible. Always.

The public, and organizations out to seek the truth -- no matter what the cost -- will no longer stand for anything less.

Gary McCormick is chairman and CEO of the Public Relations Society of America and director of partnership development at HGTV in Knoxville, Tenn.
Filed under: Opinion
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