One of the axioms in public relations is what you share privately with your employees will – eventually – make its way to the press and other external audiences. I can remember years ago having contests featuring bets on how long it would take for a CEO’s memo or news on a job action to leak. The difference now is the leak happens in minutes, not hours or even days. In fact, some sophisticated communication teams now plan their efforts with the premise that most if not all communication activities will eventually find their way to the public domain – no matter their initial target. The recent events surrounding the SEC charges against Goldman Sachs are a case in point.
In the space of several days, Goldman was the target of a mountain of media coverage (and social media chatter). In an unhappy coincidence – or great opportunity – Goldman needed to manage a number of high-profile activities – responding to the SEC charges, testifying before Congress, announcing earnings, and releasing its annual report among others. Communication supporting these events – formal and otherwise – all found their way into the mix, helping to shape the dialog and public reaction.
In fact, ostensibly internal messages from Goldman CEO Lloyd Blankfein to his global staff served as a more robust and nuanced response than the official statements – which were succinct and formal, bathed in carefully crafted legal content. (A Goldman spokesperson commented on the purpose of the internal voice messages…with language that seemed carefully scripted.) Here’s a good summary of the SEC action and Goldman’s initial formal response. This article mentions a Goldman letter to clients as another key source of information on the issue. Finally, a letter to shareholders – featured in the annual report – added to the communication stew.
Did Goldman proactively plan and coordinate all these messages and activities – assuming they would collectively form its response? If they didn’t, they should have. Communication professionals should assume that audience silos – and firewalls – have become little more than rice paper in this age of social media, real-time news and transparency. For some time companies have communicated with their employees through public channels – like advertising thanking staff for their effort and achievements – but the Goldman situation suggests proactive PR planning and cross-functional coordination is now a price of entry, rather than a special tactic.