The WikiLeaks Era: Is It Safe to Talk?

E-mail hacks and fake news are spurring a corporate communications overhaul, a new Korn Ferry study finds.

Just because their firms haven’t been compromised by leaks yet doesn’t mean that corporate leaders aren’t really worried about them.

In an exclusive Korn Ferry survey, 70 percent of executives say their C-suite leaders and boards are concerned about the threats from leaks or fake news. As a result, almost four in 10 said their companies were changing or had already changed their e-mail policies. “This is a more disruptive world for organizations,” says Richard Marshall, global managing director for Korn Ferry’s Corporate Affairs practice. “The threat of reputational damage due to leaks or fake news is on the rise.”

Such sentiment was echoed Tuesday at Korn Ferry’s panel, “Communications in the WikiLeaks Era.” The panel, held in New York, included Brian Fallon, national press secretary for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, and Gary Sheffer, former chief communications officer at GE, and was attended by some of Corporate America’s leading communications executives. The panel discussed the steps that firms are taking to cut down on the risk of leaks, including upgrading data security software, deleting e-mail more frequently, and strengthening password protocols.

One strategy: Assume that everything the firm does can be made public, so make sure everything is consistent with the firm’s culture and values. This policy makes explaining firms’ actions considerably easier. “You can have all the war rooms and plans that you want but if you don’t start with culture in this climate, you’re in trouble,” Fallon says.

Hacking and leaking have become hot topics since last summer when the e-mail of the Democratic National Committee was posted on WikiLeaks. The kinds of disclosures—snared directly from e-mail accounts—could creep more into the business sector. Indeed, hackers last year broke into two social media accounts of Mark Zuckerberg.

Leaks, along with the growing pervasiveness of “fake news,” have become complex issues for top communications officers to handle. In its survey, Korn Ferry received more than 100 responses from executives at all levels. More than half of said they had become more careful about what they wrote in e-mail since reports of the WikiLeaks disclosures.

In a smaller canvassing of more than a dozen of leading chief communication officers, 75 percent said their organizations were putting in new safeguards to mitigate risks of information leaks. One executive said his company was even going so far as to reduce the number of people looped in on sensitive information and tighten nondisclosure policies. “We always assume internal matters will go external,” another executive said.

Sheffer says the scramble to rewrite the communications playbook isn’t unprecedented. Firms restructured their communications teams and strategies when Barack Obama became president because communications executives expected a considerably more interventionist government than seen with prior presidents.

Only 19 percent of the communications executives said their firms had been impacted by fake news so far. But many are taking steps to curtail future problems. One executive said his firm is creating “truthsquad” websites to highlight supported facts about his organization while exposing false claims. “Organizations may have dealt with ‘alternative facts’ before, just not at the speed with which that misinformation can now travel thanks to social media,” Marshall says. “Between the leaks and fake news, it’s not surprising that firms are doing a major rethink on their communications strategies and operations.”