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The Marcus Perspective

There's A Leak in My Firm

Never Mind Who ó Why?

By Bruce Marcus

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OK, somebody talked to the press, and leaked information that shouldnít have been leaked. Thatís three problems, not one.

Primary, of course, is how we control the damage caused by the leak. Then we worry about who did it.

The second problem is that who did it is frequently not as important as why it was done. That may be the more urgent damage to control. The problem caused by the press leak will go away by itself, most often. It has to be treated like any bad story, and weíve talked a lot about that in these pages. But the reason for the leak can be more stubborn to deal with, as is the mechanics of preventing leaks.

The mechanics of preventing leaks can be tricky, and thatís the third problem. If theyíre mishandled, they can cause more damage to the firm than the leaks do.

Leak prevention, on the face of it, can be pretty obvious. For example:

  • With sensitive information, limit access to only those who have to know. Chances are youíll find that itís fewer people than you think.
  • Number and control sensitive documents, so that one person knows who has what documents.
    • If you have a lot of sensitive information, appoint a security officer, even a temporary one, if thatís what the situation warrants, with the responsibility to keep aware of who knows what and who has what documents.
    • The greater danger in leaks is not the information that gets out ó itís the effect of a climate of suspicion in the firm. Morale gets shot and efficiency goes way down when everybody functions under a cloud of suspicion. Thatís why the fact of the leak itself, and not the information leaked, is the more dangerous.†This is not to say that the information leaked isnít damaging. It can be all out destructive. The leak about the partnerís dissatisfaction with the managing partner, or the new merger can be devastating. The leak about merger discussions can wreck the discussions. But the damage done to a firm by the fallout from a cloud of suspicion can be the worst of all.
    • If it persists, and continues to be serious, then get professional help. Detective work is no game for amateurs. Yes, you can play at it with such devices as feeding individuals deliberately false or marked information. Then if it leaks you know who did it. But this can be a dangerous game, with farther reaching consequences than you want. Get a professional on it.

Why People Leak

It may be more important to find out why the information leaked. Except to punish the individual ó which may not always be warranted ó the leak is really a symptom. People leak information for several reasons:

  • Malice. Some individual wants to cause damage, either for its own sake, or for revenge for some real or imagined slight, or for some other purely neurotic reason ó all of which may be the same thing.
  • Self-importance. Being able to tell a reporter, ďI know a secret.Ē There is absolutely no reason to believe that because an individual has reached a position of importance, he or she is emotionally mature ó is not an adolescent.
  • Politics. At one firm, a group opposed to the managing partner used leaks as a tactic to embarrass him. It worked, by leading the press to do a story based on the rumors that had been leaked. Because the leakers were more cooperative with the press, their point of view was the one that prevailed in the story.
  • To curry favor†with a reporter, by being the source of inside information.†
  • Innocent accident.†Somebody tells something to somebody without realizing that he or she is leaking, or spreading a rumor. Or somebody loyal to the firm innocently tells somebody else thought to be trustworthy ó but who really isnít.

Itís this array of reasons for leaking that comprise the dangerous symptoms.

Why should there be a ground for malice in a firm? Is the management group aware of it? Whatís the cause of it? What must be done to eliminate it -- or to eliminate the individual?

The self-important individual is usually easy to recognize. That individual should be identified, and kept from sensitive information, when possible.

Politics is almost impossible to deal with in a firm, particularly a large one. The only solution is absolutely wise management. OK, as Napoleon said, then give me lucky generals. But this kind of situation is a clue to a serious crisis in management. A poorly managed firm, one in which the callousness to the needs of the firm leads to hurting the firm for an individual or a groupís political advantage, is in serious trouble.

As for the other causes, they are primarily emotional or careless, They can be dealt with only by taking steps to make a point of not just the secrecy, but the reasons for it. If leaks are a problem, then firm management may have to make a point of patiently explaining how the firm is hurt by it, and how that affects every individual, including the person responsible for the leak. Thoughtlessness and mindlessness are not tolerated in dealing with clients. Why should they be tolerated in dealing with the firm?

On the face of it, leaks are a communications ó and therefore a marketing ó problem. But clearly, they are more than that, and should be treated accordingly.

The problem is that a leak in a firm is like a thief in the firm. It angers, beclouds, and saddens everybody. And everybody loses.


Bruce W. Marcus is a Connecticut-based consultant in marketing and strategic planning for professional firms, the editor of THE MARCUS LETTER ON PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING, (www.marcusletter.com), the author of PROFESSIONAL SERVICES MARKETING 3.0 (Bay Street Group, 2011†http://bit.ly/MarcusBook), and the co-author of†CLIENT AT THE CORE†(John Wiley & Sons, 2004) His e-mail address is†marcus@marcusletter.com. © 2013 Bruce W. Marcus. All rights reserved.

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