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What businesses should know about WikiLeaks

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has a few words of advice for business leaders. To help prevent secrets from spilling out, managers should "do things to encourage leaks from dishonest competitors. Be as open and honest as possible. Treat your employees well."

Assange's admonition in a Forbes cover story, which reveals that the publicity-hungry WikiLeaks founder plans to release damaging evidence against a major U.S. bank in early 2011, may be a tad simplistic and patronizing. But it's also fair warning to CEOs and corporate leaders who find themselves managing in an era when any employee could in effect call a worldwide press conference that anonymously shares trade secrets or documents that reveal unethical behavior. In an age of social media, a management challenge most business leaders are already familiar with is about to get worse. WikiLeaks, Forbes reports, is going after business.

What should leaders do to prepare? The first and most obvious, of course, is to run an ethical business. If there is nothing worth leaking, there is nothing worth worrying about.

But that's easier said than done, especially in very large corporations where rogue employees or unscrupulous staffers could be flouting ethical standards, or worse, legal statutes. And this is where Assange's advice is at least partly wrong. Yes, being open and honest is the best way to avoid ugly truths from creeping out later. When it comes to ethical violations, as any crisis communications manager knows, the best approach is to get ahead of the story, controlling it by being transparent from the start and releasing the news on your own terms.

But some secrets--whether confidential intelligence cables or information about upcoming products that could damage future profits--are meant to stay that way. One of the poorly answered questions from the prior WikiLeaks dump is how a young Army private had access to all those thousands of documents in the first place. Complete openness and transparency is not only impossible but undesirable in any large institution. Controlling who has access to information that matters--without limiting access to information that would be helpful to employees--is a tension every leader should be wrestling with today.

Assange's other advice is mixed. I'm not sure how encouraging leaks at dishonest organizations prevents them from happening in your own. While he makes a compelling argument that good businesses will benefit from leaks about unethical companies, actively taking part in urging leaks about corrupt competitors is beyond the scope of what most leaders view as ethical management.

It would be better to follow his other suggestion: to treat employees well. Staffers who feel rewarded, inspired and respected are more likely to protect corporate secrets, rather than reveal them. If it's damaging emails about questionable behavior you're trying to prevent from escaping, no amount of cushy pay or benefits is likely to deter the principled whistle blower. But preventing leaks of a more competitive nature is sure to be far less likely in companies that make their employees feel secure.

Where Assange may be most right is that technology is unlikely to be the answer. Despite the fact that the Defense Department and corporate security firms are hard at work plugging the holes with technology, Assange considers the potential of any of it to prevent leaks "marginal": "Anyone who's motivated can work around it."

Business leaders worried about leaks won't be able to do much to deter them if their corporate culture, particularly at the executive level, is already self-absorbed, greedy or unethical. (Assange says the upcoming bank document dump will reveal "all the regular decision making that turns a blind eye to and supports unethical practices: the oversight that's not done, the priorities of executives, how they think they're fulfilling their own self-interest. The way they talk about it.")

But if their companies are well-run, soundly principled businesses, technology isn't the answer for leaders looking to fill the gaps that could lead to shared secrets. An equitable, fair culture that treats employees with respect and where that behavior is modeled by executives is the only real chance they've got.

By Jena McGregor

 |  November 30, 2010; 12:08 PM ET |  Category:  Corporate leadership , Crisis leadership , Federal government leadership , Foreign Affairs , Government leadership , Presidential leadership , Public leadership Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Comments

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If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to worry about. Isn't that what they said about warrantless wiretaps?

Posted by: fishinfool | December 1, 2010 3:42 PM

Mr. Assange is quite mistaken about the potential for people engaging in the sort of betraying acts he advocates to be caught at it.

Let's see what his opinions are after a few years in jail.

Posted by: Nymous | December 1, 2010 2:02 PM

I wonder where the hedge funds are betting?

I wonder what the odds they are getting on Goldman Sachs?

Posted by: walker1 | December 1, 2010 9:10 AM

Some 40+ years ago, as a graduate student in Public Relations, we were presented with a definition of the field that applies across the board:

"Public Relations is good performance appreciated".

Note: the good performance comes before the appreciation. If your organization is performing ethically, a Wikileaks dump is less likely to cause you problems.

On the other hand......

Posted by: chasbrow | December 1, 2010 3:40 AM

Nice.

Unless you are totally blind, you probably have noticed that both Ethical and Unethical "Business Leaders" have no qualms at all prosecuting people who steal from them. This is often given spin as a "choice" when in fact it's just an end around principle. There will be a lot of necessary head bending going on.

Posted by: gannon_dick | November 30, 2010 6:58 PM

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