bad publicity

Is That Memo Worth Sending? These 5 Leaked Memos Will Make You Reconsider.

Before hitting 'send,' consider the ramifications if that memo is seen by outside eyes.
Is That Memo Worth Sending? These 5 Leaked Memos Will Make You Reconsider.
Image credit: Henrik Sorensen | Getty Images
Guest Writer
Freelance writer
5 min read
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Are you about to send an important internal memo to your employees? Maybe one that you would prefer your customers, clients and the general public not see? Before you hit "Send," perhaps you should consider the ramifications of what could happen if that memo were leaked to outside eyes.

Related: The 7 Biggest Social Media Fails of 2017

Unfortunately, hundreds of founders and CEOs have neglected this important step of the process -- as in "stop and think." And, as a result, they've paid dearly for it.

These are just some of their stories:

1. United Airlines

Last year, United Airlines caught the ire of the general public after a video of a man being forcibly removed from one of its planes went viral. Afterwards, CEO Oscar Munoz tried to be as neutral as possible with his personal brand, but the memo he sent out to employees pinned the blame entirely on the customer:

"As you will read, this situation was unfortunately compounded when one of the passengers we politely asked to deplane refused and it became necessary to contact Chicago Aviation Security Officers to help," Munoz wrote. His words made it sound like United Airlines was the victim, and it undermined the company's attempts to improve its image.

2. Toyota

Around 2010, Toyota was facing problems with an acceleration flaw in some of its vehicles. Its original story was that these acceleration-related accidents were the result of driver error, but eventually, the company recalled the vehicles in question.

Everything seemed acceptable with Toyota's version of events until a leaked document indicated that the company was intentionally using the media spotlight and public controversy as a way to distract investigators from its attempts to cover up a separate, equally damaging mistake. Ultimately, the company was hit with more than 400 wrongful death lawsuits and a $1.2 billion fine.

These were the results of more than just the leaked memo, but the leaked memo certainly didn't help Toyota's public image.

3. Walmart

Justified or not, Walmart doesn't have the best reputation for treating its employees well. Making that reputation even worse, hackers a few years ago leaked internal documents revealing the extensive efforts the retailer had taken to prevent its employees from unionizing.

Related: What to Do When You're Getting Bad Press

The documents encouraged managers who heard employees talking negatively about wages and benefits, or mentioning unions directly, to report that activity to a "Labor Relations Hotline." It's unclear what Walmart intended to do to those employees, if anything. But the retailer's intentions probably weren't positive. Walmart never explicitly threatened any employees speaking up for their rights as employees, but this instance of corporate leaking represented an image problem for the company.

4. Cerner Corporation

Cerner Corporation is a health information technology company. And, back in 2001, it wasn't doing particularly well, so CEO Neal Patterson took it upon himself to berate his staffers about their declining performance. "We are getting less than 40 hours of work from a large number of our K.C.-based EMPLOYEES," he wrote. "The parking lot is sparsely used at 8 a.m.; likewise at 5 p.m. As managers -- you either do not know what your EMPLOYEES are doing; or you do not CARE. [...] you have a problem and you will fix it or I will replace you."

Three days after the leaking of the memo, the share price of the company had fallen 22 percent in response to lost investor confidence.

5. Apple

This one is worth including for the irony alone. After noting some of the publicly unpopular leaked memos of its tech contemporaries' tech as well as those of other major corporations -- and the leaks within its own ranks -- Apple made a decision.

It decided to warn its employees about the consequences of leaking memos. In its announcement Apple claimed to have "caught" 29 leakers and arrested 12 of them. Apple then explained, in a veiled threat, "These people [will] not only lose their jobs; they can face extreme difficulty finding employment elsewhere." This memo, too, of course, was leaked, proving the ineffectiveness of the tactic.

The point

So, what's the point of looking at all these mishaps, failures and PR disasters?

  • Realize that leaks will happen. You can't protect against a leak, no matter what kind of NDAs you have your employees sign. Don't get lulled into a false sense of security.
  • Contemplate the worst-case scenario. Before you hit "send,' envision what the worst-case scenario would look like. That way, you're prepared for everything.
  • Proofread. Read your memo over multiple times. Double check it for tone, intention and spelling. Think about how it might read to someone outside your company, or about any way it could be misinterpreted.

Related: A Single Leak Can Ruin Your Business. Here's How to Protect Yourself.

The wrong memo at the wrong time can make your company look terrible, hurting sales and damaging your brand reputation. Fortunately, with a cautious attitude, you can prevent or at least mitigate the damage you might incur from a leaked memo -- and avoid situations like the ones described above.

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