Not going to happen. If you think leaks are not going to happen, you’re wrong. With the Internet, everyone is a publisher. So, everyone can leak your plans. You have to assume leaks are going to happen. And, if you think you can keep them from derailing your carefully laid out communication plans, you’re wrong again. That’s not going to happen either. You’re only viable option is to assume there’s going to be a leak somewhere along the way, do what you can to control your communication as long as possible, and have second phase ready for when you lose control.
People want to be in the room where it happens. If they’re not, they dig around until they find a way in or find out what’s going on. If they are in the room where it happens, they want others to know how important they are. These collide into a bias for leaks.
Furthermore, the Internet is a conduit. It breaks down the walls between internal and external communication. Internal memos get forwarded externally. Internal talks get videoed and shared externally. And everyone has access to outside information all the time.
So, things are going to leak. The issue is that disrupts your ability to control your communication. For major announcements, follow these steps:
I – Set the action plan. This is the substance of what you’re going to announce. Messaging should flow from your actual plan, not the other way around.
II – Set the first phase of the communication plan. This includes your message and who hears what, when and from whom. Know that everyone’s main question is “What does this mean for me?” In general, you want to tell:
- Those emotionally impacted first. They should hear one-on-one in a place that allows them to express their emotions.
- Those directly impacted second. They should hear in small groups in a setting that allows them to ask questions to better understand the changes.
- Those indirectly or not impacted last. They can hear through mass communication.
III – Have a second phase ready to activate when the first phase of your communication leaks. Know that every additional person you read into the change decreases the likely time to the first leak. It’s not that they will leak intentionally. It’s that their knowing and changing something they normally do adds one more datapoint to someone else’s picture. Your second phase of your communication plan will probably look like a crisis management plan:
- Prepare in advance. The better you have anticipated possible scenarios, the more prepared you will be, and the more confidence you’ll have when leaks occur. (Which they will.)
- React to events. The reason you prepared is so that you can react quickly and flexibly to the situation you face. Don’t over-think this. Do what you prepared to do.
- Bridge the gaps. The big gap is going to be in the order in which people hear about the changes.
If the leak happens before you’ve told those emotionally impacted, divide and conquer and get to them as soon as practical. In the absence of a leak, you could have told them sequentially. Now you’ll have to get to them in parallel. Then go on to the directly impacted and finally those indirectly impacted.
If the leak happens after you’ve told those emotionally impacted, but before you get to those directly impacted, gather them up as soon as practical and tell them. Then go on to those indirectly impacted.
If the leak happens just before you’ve told those indirectly impacted, there’s less to worry about. Still, you should accelerate your mass message if you can.
Some practical thoughts
The shorter the time between when you tell the first person and your mass communication, the less likely things will leak during your communications.
Know you’re going to miss one or more emotionally impacted people. This is generally because you did not anticipate them being emotionally impacted. When that happens, take the hit. Apologize. Tell them what you know. Let them vent. And move one.
Click here for a list of my Forbes articles (of which this is #675) and a summary of my book on executive onboarding: The New Leader’s 100-Day Action Plan.