Dear PR Matters,
I work in a PR agency and was recently promoted to a managerial position handling client accounts. With that, I have discovered I have become more privy to information regarding our clients.
At the same time, attending management meetings has exposed me to discussions that contain confidential information. This has made me more aware of my responsibility to keep all this information private.
Will it be possible to share with me some tips on how PRs should handle privileged information?
First of all, my International Public Relations Association colleagues and I would like to congratulate you on your recent promotion. I am happy you asked this question because discretion is very important in our profession.
Very often, PR heads report directly to top management, and with that, comes privileged information we all need to know how to handle. While discretion has always been the order of the day for PRs, it is even more crucial now with the advent of technology and social media. Think leaks and hacking. We really have to be more careful.
I would like to share with you Arthur Solomon’s article on PR News, “Mum’s the Word: How PR Pros Should Handle Privileged Information”, which gives some very insightful tips.
He begins by referring to a recent event that has made us aware how vulnerable we can become. “The fracas at the Democratic convention of the WikiLeaks e-mails once again proves what I’ve always preached to PR practitioners”, he said. “Always be careful of what you put in writing and what you say, in person or over the phone.”
With all the hacking going on, “it’s now more important than ever to remember that ‘mum’s the word.’” He then listed “some dos and don’ts that should be practiced by people in our profession.”
E-mails: “Never email anything that a client says is confidential to others in your agency,” Solomon said. Instead, “walk it over to members of your team. If you have to relay the information to other offices, don’t do it via office phones or smartphones. Overnight the information”.
Discussing confidential information: “This should be done in a setting with other people nearby, even members of your agency,” he said, speaking from experience. “Take a walk around the block and discuss it outside of the office.”
Your briefcase: Solomon’s warning. “It’s dangerous to carry confidential information in a briefcase filled with other documents. When looking through your briefcase, it’s easy for the confidential information to be misplaced, or fall out.”
Marking an envelope with a confidential stamp: This calls attention to the content of the documents and may arouse curiosity. Solomon prefers writing “personal” on the envelope. But knowing human nature, “there is no guarantee that the envelope will not be opened only by the person for whom it was intended.”
Receiving confidential information by mistake: We can, at one time or the other, find ourselves in this situation. Solomon’s advice: “Don’t mention it to anyone in your organization. Instead, inform the individual who sent the information and let that individual dictate what should be done.”
Also, “as soon as you see the information wasn’t meant for you, stop reading it”.
On public transportation: Solomon related an incident to show how much value is placed on classified information.
“I once traveled by airplane to a client meeting to unveil a new program,” he recalled. “When we were done with the presentation, our client said he was instructed by a top marketing executive not to let us leave the plane until we were questioned by the exec.”
What happened was, “we were on the same plane as the marketing executive and an advertising team that was presenting their plans for a new product rollout. The ad team was discussing their plans on the plane, just one row ahead of the marketing exec.”
It turned out “three agencies were presenting that afternoon and the exec didn’t know which team was from the ad agency. When it was our turn to be questioned, we were told what happened, received an apology for detaining us and were told the penalty for discussing client information in public was to lose the account, which the ad agency did”.
Solomon’s personal credo is “information not to be distributed to the media should never be discussed in public places and should only be distributed or discussed on a need-to-know basis. That’s a good rule to follow”.
All in all, Solomon said we should be reminded of a World War II slogan: “Loose lips sink ships.”
PR Matters is a roundtable column by members of the local chapter of the UK-based IPRA, the world’s premier association for senior professionals around the world. Millie Dizon, the senior vice president for Marketing and Communications of SM, is the local chairman.
We are devoting a special column each month to answer the reader’s questions about public relations. Please send your comments and questions to email@example.com.