Leaks don’t always come from faucets

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By Tony Samson

IN A NON-PLUMBING CONTEXT, a leak refers to information secretly divulged to the public (just between the two of us) even when intended to be kept private. Embargoed news items are the stuff of headlines, even when the source is not identified. A question mark will suffice.

Media stories like to follow the teleserye template: an erstwhile TV talent publicly denouncing a big media company and hoping for its fall, rumors of secret medical procedures, and disclosed bribes to secure a leadership post. Leaking is a kind of striptease, revealing more and more names, incidents, and twists in a slow number but without any music. As in that other tantalizing form of entertainment uncovering the sweet spot too early makes the audience lose further interest.

Leaks do not necessarily originate from rogue sources. Private disclosures to the grapevine, especially in the corporate setting, are used to test an idea, a way of “socializing” a contentious issue.

An unpopular decision like the elimination of car benefits in a company is informally fed to the rumor mill. This is sped up with a cautionary warning — please keep this to yourself. How will executives react to the non-replacement of their cars? Will the parking system dispense with reserved spaces and allow anyone to park in any available slot on a first-come-first-parked basis?

Press releases are one form of leaking from authorized faucets. These are official company positions, usually in a formal statement announced at a press conference, complete with meals and small souvenirs in handy bags (or envelopes) for the audience.

Still, disinformation, now called fake news, can be deliberately released too, without attribution but with official sanction. This is picked up by media and identified as leaks from “official sources.” These usually involve denials of wrongdoing or some fake endorsement of a higher up — he has the support of the Mayor.

Deniability is a critical feature of leaks. It gives the official source a chance to characterize the leaked information as inaccurate, even malicious. (We don’t know where these wild speculations are coming from, and what motives are driving them.) Still leaks are tools for manipulating public opinion. Since these are not attributed to any person or office, they can easily be denied later by the proper official if found too unpopular.

Leaks can be used as a form of market research. The target audience’s reaction is immediate and can be prepared for. A new product to be launched can be leaked to see what the competition will do or has already done.

Unattributed statements (deep background) provide context to a story without putting the source at risk. Reporters develop such sources in their beats to make sense of political or corporate developments. Also, spin doctors give them storylines to pursue, complete with a few select leaks.

Still, organizations keep genuine secrets safe by limiting access to a very small group. No matter how much care is taken to embargo an announcement until the proper time, there is always a leak in the system.

The services of “plumbers” who can plug leaks can go to illegal lengths, including wire-tapping and break-ins to do the job. Fixing leaks can have worse consequences than just reacting to them. In the case of a president using plumbers to break into an office introduced the name of the building into the political lexicon — Watergate.

A leak not for attribution should be treated with caution. If a person cannot be quoted, it does not matter what he says since he can always deny it. And if he happens to be using a hash tag, should he even be acknowledged?

Even statements caught on TV can still be dismissed with a simple denial — I was misunderstood. The sound bite was badly edited. Denial does not always require lying. A simple shrug of the shoulder suffices — so, what are you going to do about it?

It is safe to go with the approach detectives take in solving murder mysteries. It is a matter of determining who benefits from a leak. There is a villain and a hero in these narratives. And the two can switch places depending on who leaks first, and how the other one reacts.


Tony Samson is Chairman and CEO, TOUCH xda.