What to do if your talking points are leaked

I can’t think of a time when I’ve used the word “leak” positively. From pre-release movie spoilers to confidential document disasters, leaks are a nightmare to public relations professionals around the globe. The leaks aren’t going anywhere – our culture seems to be leakier than ever. How can we tamp this valve before we all drown?!

Ok, maybe that was a bit dramatic, but the sentiment is true. We need to be prepared to deal with leaks at every turn, especially when the contents of our work are confidential. In reality, when we put words to paper (especially digital paper), it’s immediately subject to discovery.

One document that I’ve seen leaked numerous times in recent history are talking points. Let me start by demystifying talking points – they’re not a “PR spin” document. Simply, talking points serve as a reminder to speakers about how to navigate public speaking opportunities. They help executives, representatives and ambassadors prepare to speak to the public by giving them fail-safe language tools and recommendations. Enlisting a PR firm to craft talking points is nothing to be ashamed of!

But, the use of a talking points document in our culture implies things that aren’t necessarily true. Talking points documents, when leaked, can make the speaker appear disingenuous, as if the points they shared are not their own. When used in a crisis situation, the contents of a talking points document can give subtle hints about where a company’s fears lie, as the points are preparing their representative to answer worst-case scenario questions. And, good talking points documents are comprehensive, and even the best interviewers rarely ask all of the questions listed on the document. So, leaked talking point documents give the public more information than they need. For these reasons, we label talking point documents as confidential.

So what do you do if your talking points document is leaked? Here are a few steps:

Practice professional ethics and write as if the document is public-facing.

Preparation for a potential leak starts before you begin writing your points! Talking points documents should outline statements that can be made to public audiences. They should never contain confidential statistics, names or information. When written this way, a leak should never be THAT bad. This goes without saying, but you should write them using professional ethics. Eliminate any notes, jokes or jabs that might be made behind closed doors (but really, you shouldn’t say them at all).

Stand behind your statements.

If your talking points are written properly, you shouldn’t have any trouble standing behind your statements. True, the public may become privy to information you were hoping you didn’t have to share, but your talking points should serve as preparation for any potential questions that journalists or stakeholders could ask. When you include a specific point, your conceding that point might become public knowledge. So, stand by your statements.

Openly accept media questions and be prepared to defend your stance.

Strong talking points should provide a spectrum of answers and leave room for very few questions, but there’s always an opportunity for someone to ask response questions. Field and answer them quickly and appropriately.

Review your process.

How did the leak happen? Were printed points inadvertently left on the table during a restroom break (Zuckerberg, I stand by you on this one. No one gets to open your padfolio when you’re not there!)? Or, did someone on your team share them with someone outside of your circle? If you can find the leak and plug it, take steps to do so.