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Behind Digital Doors

Remember that Every Utterance is Potentially a Public Utterance.

By Thomas J. Roach

The game has changed. Secrets won’t remain under a hat, they don’t stay in Vegas, and they go to the grave with no one.

In the digital world, nothing can be kept behind closed doors because there are no doors. Business communicators need to understand that every utterance is potentially a public utterance.

Public Record
Google now presides over more than half of the email exchanges in the United States and it is conceivable that any one of them could be sitting on a server somewhere and is available to be redistributed. Facebook is offering a new journal option that will organize a user account by year, month and day. Anyone with access to the account can go back in time and read every word that was posted on a given date.

The potentially public record of our communication goes beyond Facebook postings and emails; search engine providers likely also have records of all Internet searches.

Many companies have their own proprietary email systems, and they seem to be sheltered from exposure. However, the safety of a private network may be more apparent than real. Any email forwarded to someone outside the company network has the potential to go public. And email within the system can be accessed by order of a judge.

What happened to Oliver North can happen to anyone.  
This may not seem threatening to governmental agencies that have always operated in the public eye. And it may make little difference to organizations whose business never puts them at odds with anyone, but it presents a significant problem for companies like quarry operations that may come into contention with citizen groups and lawmakers.

From a public relations perspective, there is clearly a wrong way and a right way to approach the problem of digital transparency. The wrong way is to try to lock down the corporate information network, and the right way is to adapt the corporate culture to the open environment.

A company should not have to worry about plans for expansion leaking to the community if the community is involved in developing the plans with the company in the first place. There is no need to fear whistleblowers exposing MSHA violations if the MSHA guidelines are routinely being followed. And there is no threat of insensitive, discriminatory or sexist quotes from management appearing in a newspaper if the company purges itself of insensitive, discriminatory and sexist managers.

Ford executives got into trouble when records came out showing that they calculated the cost of providing a safer gas tank for the Pinto and weighed it against the cost of the lawsuits from families of victims of exploding gas tanks and decided not to reengineer the gas tanks. Was their mistake letting the research leak, or was it not putting the lives of their customers ahead of their profit margin?

U.S. Representative Anthony Weiner’s problem was not his Twitter account. It was his ego and the explicit pictures of himself that he sent to at least six women.

And Oliver North’s problem was not that he failed to wipe his hard drive clean; it was that he participated in the sale of weapons to Iran and channeled money to the Contras in Nicaragua in violation of the Boland Amendment.

Obviously things like competitive marketing strategies, attorney client privilege and personnel decisions need to be discussed with a degree of privacy, but when it comes to dealing with public issues, if an opinion cannot be spoken in public, it probably is best not spoken at all.

The digital environment may force us to behave as we wish to be seen, and in the long run, we will be better for it.

Thomas J. Roach, Ph.D., has 30 years experience in communication as a journalist, media coordinator, communication director and consultant. He has taught at Purdue University Calumet since 1987, and is the author of “An Interviewing Rhetoric.” He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..