Look at My Confidential Strategic Plan, Ma!
I had a reaction to the release of Uber’s internal lobbying documents this week that was probably…unconventional. While it certainly appears that Uber crossed some lines in its advocacy efforts, something else struck me in a way that would only bother someone who made his living in crisis management: The reckless indiscretion of Uber’s operatives.
Oh, I know, the leak of the Uber files is the epitome of transparency, and there is nothing that we all love more than transparency. Let’s accept that this is true. It still doesn’t address my narrow, strategic concern, which is that crisis management and its attendant advocacy is becoming impossible because of how the people who are supposedly experts are constitutionally incapable of basic discretion.
That’s right, discretion. It means you don’t talk about your clients and bosses; you serve them quietly and hopefully ethically.
What happened with Uber is no longer the exception. It’s the rule.
In an age when consultants are often part of publicly-traded conglomerates, the pressure to be perpetually showcasing capabilities is more important than fiduciary obligations to the client. Indeed, working on a current campaign is constantly twisting yourself into pretzels to demonstrate “deliverables” and “metrics” to clients while pandering for new business by promoting case studies in real-time. Consultant websites and PowerPoint presentations are awash in this stuff.
The ubiquity of email – of which opposing litigators, journalists and legislative investigators are abundantly aware – guarantees that not only will your whole program become public but that it will be characterized as being unethical by a media that equates the very existence of planning documents with malfeasance. (I recall a newspaper article a few years ago expressing outrage that a PR firm had recommended that its client “develop message points” in a leaked memo, which is like protesting that a restaurant has menus in its possession)
The epidemic of indiscretion has changed crisis and advocacy plans in another way. Whereas in the past, opponents of an initiative used to protest openly, today, they focus their efforts on obtaining internal documents to leak them. Time and again, I have had to tell clients that their enemy is not out there: it’s every horror movie where the call is coming from inside the house. Complicating matters is that when companies take steps to safeguard their proprietary materials, they are accused of being criminally secretive and engaging in corporate spying.
If it turns out that Uber encouraged law-breaking with its expansion efforts, the courts and other watchdogs will deal with it. Nevertheless, not all assertive defenses are criminal or immoral, but their opponents are uniquely well-equipped to make it look that way through their publicity machines, which include their eager handmaidens in the press.
Enterprises under fire will have to decide if it’s more important to prevail in a fight or to document it to show the boss/client how well they’re doing. They will also need to decide whether it’s acceptable for consultants to be perpetually broadcasting proprietary material under the mantel of Client Updates.
To state the obvious, we are operating in a radically changed climate than when many of us started in business. If the new rules include recklessness, self-promotion and a fetish for memorializing work over doing it, then so be it. But if those who find themselves under attack have any interest in prevailing over their critics, they will need to quickly unburden themselves of any practice that tries to justify itself by flying under the transparency flag.