Loose lips (and posts) sink ships

The phrase “loose lips sink ships” is more than just a handy bit of homespun advice. It was a serious warning for Americans who lived during the World Wars of the last century. It’s also valuable advice for the newfound territories of social media.

“Loose lips” was a powerful reminder that sensitive data that was discussed publicly could be overheard by those working for the enemy. An offhand remark about a supply ship’s destination could put it in the crosshairs of a submarine’s periscope. Military and diplomatic lore abounds with true stories in which a carelessly handled piece of information doomed a battle or other critical operation. In fact, military leaders in World War II were so aware of the constant presence of espionage that they deliberately distributed misinformation among civilians on the homefront in the hope that it would reach and prove convincing to enemy leaders.

Some people refer to the business world with military metaphors, likening the marketplace to a battlefield and competitors to enemy troops. Even if you don’t take the comparison that far, it’s true that intelligence about what a competitor may be doing can be amazingly powerful. And information that may not actually reveal a company’s strategy may damage its reputation. Just ask companies that have seen their “internal” email messages pop up on the front page of the local newspaper.

Unfortunately, there are managers and employees who seem to have little appreciation for the potential danger associated with casually guarded secrets and other information. Back when I rode the train to and from work every day, I was stunned at the clearly private or sensitive material I’d overhear as people shared the day’s happenings with their companions. On one occasion, I glanced at a clearly confidential (and fascinating) market research report for a very large fast-food chain when a fellow passenger reviewed the contents with no effort to conceal it.

I remember when my ad agency was struggling to hang on to a multimillion-dollar client despite a highly political effort to fire us. Less than a week before our last-ditch presentation, one of our foes from the client downed one drink too many at a local watering hole. He gleefully told his companion how his group had hoodwinked us by withholding key information, never noticing that two of our execs were in the next booth, able to hear every word. The man and his allies were stunned when our presentation addressed matters we weren’t supposed to know, and we kept the account.

While this lack of common sense about sensitive information has plagued companies forever, the explosion of social media channels has exacerbated the problem. People who have no compunction about posting the most intimate details of their private lives seem to take a similar approach with workplace information. Not a week goes by that I don’t see something posted on Facebook or LinkedIn that would have made me give serious thought to disciplining or firing the posters, had they been on my payroll.

It isn’t always sensitive or confidential information about a company. Sometimes, it’s just a matter of airing dirty laundry in a public forum. I suspect the posters believe that the information is accessible to only their friends or connections, but these sites have confusing and ever-changing approaches to privacy. If a mutual friend comments on that employee’s post, a third party may be able to see it. The same holds true with email. Consider how damaging archived emails have been to companies and elected officials in recent highly publicized cases.

In the current rush to share everything with everyone, it’s important to remember that some information needs to be handled with discretion. Maybe you really shouldn’t tweet those rude comments about the manager you dislike. Perhaps you shouldn’t share that facet of your company’s planned strategy in a LinkedIn discussion group. It probably isn’t a good idea to commit some of those ugly thoughts about a political opponent to email. Even in this well-connected age, some things probably are best left to old-fashioned, private, face-to-face conversations.

Loose lips really did sink ships in the past. Today, they can sink your career — or even your company.

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Scott Flood creates effective copy for companies and other organizations. His guide to evaluating freelance creative talent, The Smarter Strategy for Selecting Suppliers, can be downloaded at https://sfwriting.com/freeguide, and his blog is at https://sfwriting.com/blog. ©2014 Scott Flood All rights reserved.