This rule is easy to remember and recite, but I am amazed at the number of people shocked when beans get spilled, lips loosened, and ships sunk. In this “new” information age, there are no secrets. From IT companies to hackers, we hear a familiar refrain, “Information wants to be free.”
I would argue that secrets have never been truly secret, but rather, the means to discover and disseminate “confidential” information has advanced to a point that any idiot with a PC can “find” and share secrets. Rather than shock and outrage, we should take a reputation management lesson from these inevitable developments in technology. First, accept that there are no secrets. Second, adjust the manner in which we communicate to account for the lack of a veil of secrecy.
The recent WikiLeaks disclosure of US diplomatic cables revealed little sensitive information of substance. From what I have read so far, most of the facts could be predicted or have appeared in media reports over the years. For example, it would be naive to think that South Korea and the United States would never discuss the possibility of Korean re-unification. In fact, as leading world powers, it would be irresponsible for these nations to avoid discussion of how best to handle that particular scenario. It is not the facts that were shocking.
If there is any indignation about the WikiLeaks information, it should center on the candor and language used in the cables when discussing nations, world leaders, and other issues of global importance. The crudeness of the messages signals a far greater problem for America’s reputation on the world stage. As the leading world power, it is reasonable to expect that our diplomatic corps would communicate with an honorable level of decorum – especially when addressing sensitive geopolitical issues. A lesser standard of conduct poses a grave threat to the nation’s reputation as a leader.
Here are a few cable gems that made me cringe:
- One diplomat observed that former Kazakh defense minister Daniyal Akhmetov “appears to enjoy loosening up in ‘homo sovieticus’ style – i.e. drinking oneself into a stupor.”
- Cables referred to German Chancellor Merkel as “Angela ‘Teflon’ Merkel” as an homage to her risk aversion and avoidance of conflict.
- Another diplomat offered the title of “Emperor without clothes” to French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
I realize that the sausage-making that is diplomacy is messy and challenging, but our national reputation deserves better, more honorable words.
Attention to language and messages is important no matter how “secret” the information. Now armed with the knowledge that secrets are no more, communicators (read: all of us) should consider all communications as public. This serves as a good reputation insurance policy.