Keeping Internal Communications … Internal

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Internal communications should be kept internal. This seems obvious, but so often when internal documents leak out they look silly — or worse — when taken out of their proper context.

Valleywag recently posted on an internal AOL slide presentation for a new service the online company launched.

Ever wonder precisely why big companies such as AOL are so painfully sluggish? Here’s an insight. AOL recently launched an enhanced search service which, alongside search results from Google, showed capsule reviews, videos and other content from AOL itself. Straightforward enough. Splice in the different databases, slap a name on the product, pray. Not for AOL. The company engaged a top-tier naming agency, evaluated 120 different options, tested the finalists with focus groups in Denver and Chicago, checked on the meaning in 16 languages — and the brand strategy group explained its process in a laughably belabored 20-slide presentation. After all that preparation, they forgot to remove the Powerpoint file from the website.

The post, of course, went on to show some of the slides.

Is this a catastrophe for AOL? No, not at all. Is it a bit embarrassing? Sure is. Could it have been much worse if the presentation had been about something sensitive? Absolutely.

The lesson is this: Keep internal communications internal. And since this is not always possible to guarantee, if the subject is really sensitive just skip the slides and do a verbal presentation. Once something is electronic, it can make the rounds … fast.

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Internal Communications Miscue, Once Again…

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Here’s the second botched internal communications post of the week. In this case, it’s a PR firm that’s at the center of it.

The story begins with a blog post by Fred Vogelstein, a Wired magazine contributing editor:

Microsoft Sends Secret Dossier on Reporter, to Reporter

Imagine being asked one day, “Would you like to see your FBI file?” You’d say “Yes,” right? But then ask yourself a different question: “How will it make you feel to know all that information?”

I recently got about as close as one can get to this experience. While reporting a story on Microsoft’s video blogging initiative — something called Channel 9 — the dossier that Microsoft and its outside public relations agency Waggener Edstrom keeps on me accidentally ended up in my email inbox.

As journalistic windfalls go this is about as good as it gets. There I was writing a story about how Microsoft is on the cutting edge of using the Internet to become more transparent, and there in front of me are the briefing documents they are using to manage the story. The timing was so fortuitous that I wondered whether it was intentional. When I told Microsoft about it, they convincingly told me it was not.

Waggener Edstrom president Frank Shaw responded with his own post:

Now, let’s talk about the briefing mail now online and the mention in the article of a — confidential dossier of 5,500 words.– Not true — someone is confusing a briefing with a dossier and — confidential – with — not sent to me.

So read on — there’s nothing surprising or nefarious here, let’s be transparent and take a look. …

Now, this is truly a lesson to be taken seriously. We in the PR business prep clients all the time for interviews, speeches and the like. We may draw up talking points and Q&A to help guide our clients. We may research reporters and their publications as well — it’s very easy with the online databases that exist, and it’s nice to know where a story is coming from.

While these internal documents are very useful for our clients, they can look bad, bad, bad to the outside world. Those who are absolutely certain that companies manipulate the media on a regular basis will find “confirmation” in such documents. The press may not appreciate the efforts you’ve gone to, either.

So, keep your internal communications internal, or you might just find yourself in the center of this kind of storm.

BTW, here’s the link to the briefing memo(PDF) …