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Watch what you say... in public18th Jul 12
By Bernard O'Riordan, Clarity Media Trainer
Several years ago, on a flight from Melbourne to Sydney, I overheard a number of business people discussing - in spades - the specifics of a business deal they were involved with.
They continued the conversation while they waited ahead of me in the taxi queue, in their own little bubble and seemingly oblivious to those around them. Little did they know that I was a business reporter who at the time covered the very sector they were gabbing about.
More recently, I was returning from a training session in Melbourne when a passenger sitting a row ahead on the flight fired up his laptop and talked business with two of his colleagues. On the screen for all to see were the sensitive financial forecasts and I.T plans of several major Australia companies they were obviously working with – including a listed Australian bank.
It’s amazing the business intelligence you can learn from people who become so absorbed in what they are doing that they forget where they are. Whether you’re waiting in a taxi queue, sitting in an airport lounge, at a cafe or bar or talking on a mobile phone - you just never know who might be within ear (or eye) shot.
Sensitive business details, scuttlebutt and innuendo are the lifeblood of business gossip columns like Rear Window in The Australian Financial Review, CBD in The Sydney Morning Herald and even Heard on The Street, the Wall Street Journal column that first appeared half a century ago.
But in the digital age, the perils of careless talk are far greater simply because Twitter and the blogosphere can reach mass audiences in an instant.
That's something a partner at a US law firm learned the hard way while travelling on a train a few years ago. While talking on his mobile phone, he blurted out details of job cuts that were to be announced at his firm that were not yet public.
What he didn't know was that the person sitting a row ahead was a blogger who covered the legal industry, and the story broke online before the firm's employees were even informed of the axings.
The things you hear in lifts (or elevators if you prefer) can also be dynamite. I remember arriving at the offices of a big Australian insurer many years ago where executives were due to brief the media on reports of a massive blowout in reinsurance losses.
As I rode the lift I was amazed to hear employees dissecting the bad news and talking openly about the briefing they’d already received from senior management.
I didn’t have “reporter” emblazoned on my forehead, so they weren’t to know I wasn’t one of them. But all it took was a throwaway line or careless comment to help shape what type of story I might write.
These nuggets of information are like gold to reporters, and all they have to do is listen.
I learned long ago that having a carefree conversation in a crowded lift is akin to a game of Russian roulette. In newspaper offices particularly, you become acutely aware that maybe a competitor from a rival publication might be listening, ready to scoop you, so you bite your tongue.
Often it’s best to endure the awkward silence in the lift rather than blurt out something sensitive or confidential. Stick to small talk or say nothing at all.
Given the rise (and occassional fall) of Twitter accounts designed to expose idle corporate banter - including @GSElevator, @HearstElevatorz and @CondeElevator - it's worth remembering that nothing you say in public these days is sacrosanct.
Overheard in the Goldman Sachs lift
The person who claims to be behind @GSElevator describes themself as a former first-year analyst, who has since worked in Goldman Sach’s investment banking and capital markets divisions. Fake or not, the Twitter account must be an uncomfortable online presence for the investment bank post-GFC.
While the @CondeElevator and @HearstElevatorz accounts are now inactive, the historical tweets also paint an interesting picture of backbiting and bitchiness in the magazine and newspaper industries.
It's surprising that while most business professional immerse themselves in risk every day, many continue to expose themselves to information breaches in public. It's a problem that continues to grow as more business travellers connect using blue-tooth and wi-fi, as this recent article in The New York Times highlights.
No matter where you are, it's worth remembering that loose lips can provide reporters - and your competitors - with information that is not yet public; information that can move share prices, ruin reputations and even cost you your job.
So if you've got something to say, try to be discreet about it. You really never know who might be listening.
You might also like to read: Watch What You Say...Post Interview
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