Your company has secrets. Mine does too.
And a critical part of your public relations practice is protecting confidential information. This may surprise those who think of PR primarily in terms of communication, but it’s true all the same, and it’s even embedded in the Public Relations Society of America Code of Ethics: “A member shall: Safeguard the confidences and privacy rights of present, former, and prospective clients and employees.”
Your public relations counselor, whether an employee or a vendor, has to be someone you can trust with private information that is relevant to any information going out in public. This enables us to steer around any sensitive areas and avoid inadvertently revealing something private or proprietary. (For this reason, it’s a good practice to have a non-disclosure agreement in place if you have an external PR firm.)
For publicly held companies, the Securities and Exchange Commission has strict rules regarding what you must release, when you should release it, and even how you should do so. It might be helpful to review these, but ultimately, this is an area in which case the firm’s lawyers will call the shots.
For purposes of this post, I’ll focus on privately held companies with no reporting requirements. If you don’t have stockholders, it’s pretty much up to you to decide what to reveal. Here are some things I routinely advise clients to keep to themselves:
- Sales figures. Frequently, a publication may decide to do a roundup of “the 10 biggest” firms in a given city or industry. Local business journals will often call for information for lists such as “the biggest real estate firms in [CITY].” While it might be good publicity to top a list, you should consider whether you want your competitors to know certain things, including sales, number of employees and other commonly requested data. You also run the risk that other firms may inflate their numbers, because there is no way for the publication to verify it. Often, it may be advisable to either offer something you’re willing to share (which they may or may not accept) or simply decline.
- Prices and contract terms. When you execute a contract with a customer, nobody needs to know everything that’s in it. If you’re a retailer, of course, you’ll probably find it to your advantage to publish your prices. But in the wholesale and services arena, you may be better off keeping it private. In making these decisions, also keep in mind that your customers may not want you revealing what they pay, especially if they’re reselling goods and services they buy from you.
- Salaries. What you pay yourself, your employees and your vendors is nobody’s business (except the IRS, of course).
- Negotiations. Never reveal who you’re negotiating with, or what you’re talking about. It may be tempting to tease a major upcoming sale, but it’s always a terrible idea. Have someone confiscate your phone until the urge to do so passes.
I could list a lot more, but you get the idea.
Remember to consider the long term implications of information you may disclose. Let’s say you’re selling real estate and you had a great year. You want the world to know just how big and successful you are! But market conditions ebb and flow, and if you trumpet this year’s sales numbers, the press and others may expect you to the same thing next year, when things aren’t looking so great. Those who notice this will assume correctly that things aren’t going so well for you – rarely a good message point.
So what do you do when the press calls asking for information you’re not willing (or required) to disclose? The best practice is to simply tell them that’s private and you’re not willing to disclose it. But it’s important to do so in a way that preserves your relationship with them. You may find it best to respond by email to minimize the risk that the reporter will keep asking questions and trying to pump you for information you shouldn’t reveal.
Even if you don’t want to say anything, it’s important to respond. Otherwise, you may be reading in the local news that you declined to return calls, which in the wrong context can make you look dishonest. And no matter what you’ve seen in the movies, never say “no comment.” That always makes it look like you’re hiding something.