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Levick Daily. Thoughts. Perspectives. Insights.

Public Affairs

WikiLeaks Key Revelation: Everything is Discoverable

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For just a moment, forget about the fact that WikiLeaks has blurred the lines between transparency and espionage. Forget about the damage that’s been done to U.S. diplomacy. Forget about the fact that the whistle-blowing site has now lost its Pentagon Papers panache. And forget about what’s to become of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, who was already on the run and now must find an even deeper hole in which to hide.

For now, set all that aside – because the most urgent revelation in the melodrama surrounding WikiLeaks’ latest disclosure of U.S. government secrets isn’t lurking within those leaked communiqués; it’s that the era of clandestine communications has officially come to an end.

At a time when terms such as “classified,” “top secret,” “privileged,” and “confidential” just don’t carry the same weight that they used to, the public and private sectors alike must become more attuned to the reality that today’s internal emails, memos, and even handwritten Post-It notes can create fodder for tomorrow’s headlines. Everything is discoverable. Nothing is out of the media’s – or bloggers’ -- range.

The U.S. Departments of State and Defense aren’t the first institutions to face the reputational consequences of the new paradigm. In April of this year, leaked internal emails portrayed Goldman Sachs employees rejoicing at the collapse of the subprime mortgage market even as clients lost their shirts. That same month, a leaked internal e-mail sent by a Toyota executive indicated that the company knew of its accelerator issues long before a U.S. recall was launched.

In both cases, the leaks jeopardized already tenuous legal positions and further vilified the companies in the Court of Public Opinion not only because they provided insight into the motives that so often remain unconfirmed in scandal; but also because they conveyed a level of hypocrisy, arrogance, and disregard for stakeholders that the public simply won’t accept.

With candid – and, in some cases, scathing – critiques of world leaders ranging from Angela Merkel to King Abdullah to Nelson Mandela now available for public consumption, it’s that later sin that the U.S. State Department must now atone for. The things it thought but did not say are now out in the open. As a result, it will likely be dealing with a significant trust deficit for some time to come.

In the WikiLeaks era, even the most seemingly protected and innocuous communications must be approached with the same care and consideration that would be afforded a news release, a tweet, or a Facebook post. Because before you know it, a message intended for certain eyes only could become the public face your institution shows to the world.

Richard S. Levick, Esq., President and CEO of Levick Strategic Communications, the world’s top crisis firm. He is also a contributing author to Bulletproof Blog. Connect with him @richardlevick.

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Comments

Jim Mulvaney

Beyond the death of presumed confidentiality, the other key factor is the new speed at which revelations explode around the globe. In my prior life as a reporter, even when I unearthed documents that lead the evening news, the impact was somewhat measured and often could be contained. What this case demonstrates is that the old strategy of repeated denial is dead. The new strategic paradigm requires a redirection of the conversation away from the bad bits and onto the ones that drive the conversation in a new direction (e.g. The State Department should be quietly pushing stories analyzing Arab hostility toward Iran rather than the unkind characterizations of world leaders. The Bush administration was successful by changing the story from bad intel to Crazy Joe Wilson).
The other point is well taken. Post Its, lost I-Phones, the harvest of dumpster diving can result in devestating revelations. Between computer forensic searches ordered during civil litigation, whistleblower revelations or just mean spirited hacking there is no sanctity.

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