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“In an internal memo seen by the Daily Planet” is a daily phrase in business media, even if leaks in the political world are yet more frequent.

Recent years have acquainted us with the megaleak, from Wikileaks and Panama Papers to the WSJ’s recent branded “Facebook Files”.  Some of these involve consortia of publications, and even external PR support for the whistleblower.

But below this top level whistleblowing, a long tail of leak stories get covered and need handling by communicators. Not least because a story that might not excite the WSJ or Bloomberg will interest some trade press or blog somewhere.

Searching “an internal memo seen by” produced 42 results in New York Times over the last year, and 87 results in the FT over the last 6 months. These stories and their equivalents elsewhere cover a spectrum – from extremely sensitive and embarrassing news for an organisation, through to information that is widely known in business circles and not of any real reputational consequence. 

The source for most stories is an employee, along with suppliers or partners. On occasion, disgruntled employees leak embarrassing news.  More often, employees, in my experience, leak in part to appear interesting to journalists. Accidental leaks also play a role – somebody mentions something, and a journalist then badgers a contact to have a look at the underlying memo. 

Technology has made this type of memo leak easier than ever, even though hugely sophisticated technology exists within corporate firewalls to track down leakers.  Papers like the FT and the New York Times, and many individual journalists, go out of their way to explain how to whistleblow/leak securely, using PGP, Signal, SecureDrop and other apps.  But in the long tail of business leaks, it seems likely that more people simply take a photo or cut and paste and use a private email account. Undoubtedly, working from home has given people more opportunity and perceived anonymity to do this, and perhaps has increased motivation to do so.  

A large volume of leaks in finance surround hiring and firing. Outlets like Financial News (Paul Clarke there is the current star on this) run multiple stories based on people news leaks, many as simple and uncontroversial as: 

Christian Reusch was also named as the head of corporate and investment banking for Germany [of Unicredit]…according to a memo seen by Financial News.

Sarah Wiggins is set to join as a vice chair [of HSBC] within its global banking business, according to a memo seen by Financial News.

This is news on the cusp of becoming public anyway.  In some cases, organizations want to tell clients or staff first.  In others, writing a press release takes time for legal sign off, or there is a policy of not press releasing all new hires below a certain level.  Often when journalists call up a firm involved (especially the one doing the hiring), the firm simply confirms the story.

Some of these stories are hardly genuine leaks, especially at trade publications.  I suspect that often the business leader responsible for making a new hire, or indeed the PR team, themselves leak a new hire (perhaps after promising to the company losing the executive that any press release would be held back).  Such a leak allows for a targeted approach to media, and at the margin, some outlets can get more excited about a leak than precisely the same information arriving in a press release.

Complex groupings or partnerships often find consensus around putting news out especially hard.  Hence the “seen by” style leak is an effective method of media communications, as in: According to figures collated by Premier League officials and seen by the Financial Times, the 20 member teams in English football’s top tier are facing £540m in lost income next season.

Covid, and in particular working from home and vaccine mandates, have proved a rich source of internal memos making their way to the media. On vaccine mandates it’s become standard practice for big banks to simply confirm enquiries relating to an internal memo. 

What is sensitive can however change quite quickly.  New Barclays CEO Venkat (CS Venkatakrishnan) wrote to colleagues at the beginning of November describing his predecessor as a “mentor and friend”, in a memo that arguably did not look as uncontroversial a week later as further news emerged.

Stressful situations usually produce leaks of greater import:  An executive at Kaisa, which has missed multiple dollar-bond payments… last week told a closed-door industry conference that the company had not benefited from the recent policy relaxations. “We are in a very difficult situation,” said the executive, Li Haiming, according to a transcript of his remarks seen by the FT.

Indeed it is striking how big non-western firms are now experiencing more leaks, as in Chinese technology giant Alibaba will sack a manager accused of rape, according to a memo seen by the BBC.  (Arguably this is not whistleblowing as Alibaba may well be doing the right thing here, even if it doesn’t want the world to know about it.)

Cui bono? (who benefits?) is often useful when trying to work out who might have leaked something.  Sometimes though it’s less easy to discern: when Natasha Harrison, the ex-deputy chair at Boies Schiller, quit to set up a rival law firm, the FT reported this based on an internal memo, which could conceivably have been leaked either by the firm, or individuals at the firm, or someone close to Harrison.

Even less investigative outlets do get into leak-based stories, often with big spashes.  The Economist has hardly any “seen by” stories, but when it does, they are big, such a massive story this year on the loot from the Magnitsky case, based on damning documents the paper had seen, including Swiss court records. 

Thinking through the memo leak

Handling leaks is an essential part of any media relations work. For anyone new in a sector, reading articles to see patterns in types of leaks is a good investment. Beyond that the important principles include:

  • For big and sensitive leaks, having a solid and rehearsed crisis framework in place is the essential foundation (along with running an ethical business where nothing will look terrible in the cold light of public scrutiny).

  • For internal news that may well leak, make sure that internal memos to large groups read well for an outside audience.  Few big firms have a culture where news given to hundreds or thousands won’t get out fast (indeed some organisations have a culture where written news to a handful of people regularly gets leaked).

  • When day-to-day leaks happen (a departure say), be flexible and pragmatic. Recognise your options are limited.  Try to assess how material and damaging such news really is. Recognise that over-aggressive media handling (never mind legal) may backfire.  If you want clients to ideally hear the information from you, speed up your comms plan. 

Andrew Marshall is the vice chairman of Cognito