The next time you’re drafting an internal memo or firing off an email to your colleagues, ask yourself: What if it ended up in the hands of a reporter?
For the vast majority of our daily internal communications, the answer is simple: Nothing. A reporter couldn’t care less about your office policy on video conferencing, the details of your health insurance plan for next year, or whether you’re going to meet your project deadlines.
But when the contents of an internal communication are sensitive, controversial or inflammatory, that’s a different story. Plus, those are precisely the kinds of communications that – with a few simple keystrokes – are most likely to end up in the hands of journalists.
For example, a few weeks ago a newspaper in Asheville, North Carolina, reported on an email sent by a local health system CEO to his employees about the end of the system’s contract with its local Blue Cross plan. The CEO called the payer an “unethical, bullying foe” that does “dirty work” and warned that patients and staffers would be “scared and irrational” about the contract termination. When asked about the email, the CEO told the paper the message was “private” and not intended for Blue Cross or the general public.
And yet, there it was, making headlines just days after he hit send.
There are a few important communication lessons in this kind of scenario:
1. Assume any written communication could become public. Once a document or email has left your hands, it’s out of your control. It could end up almost anywhere – left on a copier, forwarded and then forwarded again, or printed and mailed to a reporter. We’ve seen sensitive information “leak” to the media even in situations where recipients are bound by nondisclosure agreements.
2. Write carefully. When crafting an internal message – particularly about issues like contract terminations, mergers or acquisitions, workforce reductions or other delicate topics – keep a public audience in mind. Choose your words carefully and consider the tone of the message. Ask yourself, if this email was in the newspaper tomorrow, would it embarrass me or my organization? Would it offend anyone? Would it endanger any of my business relationships?
3. Use “leaks” to your advantage. From time to time, organizations may find it advantageous for an internal communication to become public. In some cases, an internal message allows a company to use a warmer tone and more personal touch than may be possible in a press release or media interview. Purposefully sharing or “leaking” such a message may help foster goodwill, or mitigate negative sentiment, during a difficult time. Of course, you should always consult with your communications advisor before sharing internal messages.
4. When in doubt, don’t write it down. If you have something highly sensitive to convey, consider actually saying it instead of writing it down. Pick up the phone or call a meeting. While there’s always a possibility that the individual or individuals you talk to could relay your words to others, removing the option to forward an email creates an extra hurdle.
Communicating with your internal teams can be tricky, especially when you have sensitive news to share. Keep the above lessons in mind and reach out to Lovell Communications at firstname.lastname@example.org if we can help.
Erin George is a Senior Account Supervisor at Lovell Communications. Connect with Erin at email@example.com.
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