When Internal Memos Leak Out: 5 Lessons For Corporate Communicators From Wal-Mart and Fallon

maccabbeBy Paul Maccabee, President, Maccabee Public Relations

The public statement issued by Minneapolis-based superstar ad agency Fallon in the wake of losing the Cadillac account was upbeat, measured and pitch-perfect: “We are exceptionally proud of our Cadillac work and the phenomenal business results it achieved,” Fallon CEO Mike Buchner was quoted in external statement sent to the Star Tribune. “The brand has momentum that it didn’t have when we took on the account almost three years ago and will serve Cadillac well as it moves forward.”


(Source: StarTribune.com)

For an agency in pain, that external statement could not have been more gracious, generous and discreet. But, there was also an internal memo to Fallon staff that was leaked almost immediately to Advertising Age and then exposed to everyone in the business world. In it, the tone of Buchner’s message about the loss of the $200 million+ account to Interpublic Group’s Rogue consortium was clearly not intended for anyone outside the walls of Fallon.

It read in part: “Today, we were officially notified that we are no longer Cadillac’s agency of record. This is an outcome we do not deserve… The fact of the matter is that we took a brand that was emerging from bankruptcy, gave it a differentiating positioning, brand identity and voice, and made Cadillac the fastest growing major car brand in the United States.” Fallon underscored for employees that Cadillac’s year-to-date sales had soared 38 percent under the agency’s stewardship, and confided to its internal audience “this isn’t the way we thought this chapter would close, but rest assured, it’s not the end of the story. There are a lot of great luxury brands out there who could use our passion, strategic smarts and creativity…”

The unfairness of Cadillac’s decision will resonate with any PR or advertising agency that’s capriciously lost a major client. There’s a reason that “ATS vs. The World,” the two-minute spot Fallon created for Cadillac set to music from the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, has generated nearly 2,000,000 views on YouTube – it’s utterly terrific advertising.

Given the caliber of that Cadillac creative, it’s not surprising that inside the advertising world, Fallon – arguably one of the three most creative and admired agencies in America – had its champions. One New Yorker commented on the Ad Age website “First, what a great note from CEO Mike Buchner to Fallon’s Cadillac staff. As compelling as it was impassioned.” Defended a Boston-based Ad Age reader: “Too often agencies offer up mealy-mouthed “we wish them well” platitudes when they’re fired by an account. I think this is a classy note from Mr. Buchner.”

Yet, although the agency’s CEO celebrated Fallon’s positive contributions to Cadillac’s brand resurrection, some of the language in his memo to employees appeared to reveal Fallon as hurt, aggrieved and ready to remind people that their former client had been “emerging from bankruptcy.”

So what should marketers and corporate communicators learn from Fallon’s experience when an internal memo becoming external? Fallon is hardly alone in seeing its employee communications shared with eyes it was not intended for. Wal-Mart will not soon forget its stock crashing when media received a leaked internal memo from a Wal-Mart VP calling February sales “a total disaster . . . the worst start to a month I have seen in my seven years with the company.”


Also, Yahoo is still stinging from its employees leaking a February 2013 memo in which an HR director told staff that its popular telecommuting option was being phased out. That Yahoo memo was marked confidential and proprietary, with the words “DO NOT FORWARD” in all caps. Awkwardly, a Yahoo PR spokesperson responded to the crisis with the phrase “we don’t discuss internal matters,” which rang hollow at a time when thousands of people were doing precisely that for them.


The Media Is Waiting Patiently To Publish Your Most Secret, Internal Memo: Expect that any internal memorandum will be shared within minutes by your employees to media covering your industry and, if at all possible, to the one reporter who has been most critical of your company. Before you fire off that memo, consider how it would read above-the-fold in the Wall Street Journal.

  1. Email Is Not The Only Way To Communicate with Employees: Not all messaging for employees needs to be shared in writing. Is your CEO intent on making sense of a disappointment for the company? Consider calling a series of face-to-face meetings with employees if he or she feels compelled to vent. Although an iPhone video of your executive’s talk could still go viral (who can forget the leaked video clip of Mitt Romney touting that his job is not to worry about the “47 percent” comment, during what he believed was a private meeting with campaign donors), a personal, oral presentation to employees is less convenient for employees to push out, compared to a memo seductively marked, “CONFIDENTIAL – DO NOT FORWARD.”

  2. You Say Confidential, I Say “Come and Get It!”: Employers may believe that adding the word “CONFIDENTIAL” provides some sort of dis-incentive for employees who might forward the CEO’s thoughts to the Star Tribune or Fortune magazine, let alone a competitor. Speaking as a former investigative journalist who enthusiastically hunted for internal documents, know that when reporters see the words “CONFIDENTIAL,” they may translate those 12 letters into the longer phrase, “OH, MY GOD – CAN YOU BELIEVE IT? PUBLISH THIS BIG, HONKIN’ SECRET RIGHT NOW.”

  3. Know When To Bite Your Tongue: Every word that Fallon CEO Mike Buchner wrote to his employees about the unfairness of its client’s decision was understandable. But in the heat of a crisis, a cooling off period (certainly before putting a CEO’s reaction in writing) may stave off a disconnect between public and private statements. To paraphrase Shakespeare in Henry VI, sometimes it’s wise to just sit, and fret, and bite down hard on your tongue. When a crisis hits, most employees want one thing – a sense of security and future-focused, positive action from their top executives.

  4. Balance Transparency With Discretion: Our PR agency always urges clients to lean toward transparency in communications with employees – e.g. don’t promise further layoffs will not occur in a memo to employees, if those layoffs are just weeks away. Yet candor must be balanced with management’s legitimate need to keep proprietary information confidential in an age when a single employee can upload hundreds of thousands of your corporate (or government) documents to a hard drive.

The revelations of the National Security Agency’s stockpiling of millions of phone records suggest how narrow our circle of personal privacy is becoming. Similarly, the Fallon, Yahoo and Wal-Mart incidents indicate that corporate privacy – specifically the ability to keep internal messaging confidential – may now have become an obsolete concept in this age of email, Twitter, Facebook, texting, YouTube and removable hard drives.

In sum, know that your internal email may well wind up as external media coverage, remember that email isn’t your only internal communications vehicle with employees, be mindful of emotional responses preserved in the harsh light of an email, and recognize that stamping the term ‘confidential’ on a memo may inspire the opposite of confidentiality. Now more than ever, the Chinese proverb rings true for communicators:

“What is whispered into the ear of a man is often heard a hundred miles away.”


About the Author: Called a “creativity guru” by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and “always alert to offbeat angles” by the Wall Street Journal, Paul Maccabee is president and co-founder of Minneapolis-based Maccabee, a public relations, corporate communications, social media and inbound content marketing agency just named one of the “100 Best Companies To Work For” in Minnesota. Winner of the Chicago Publicity Club’s Creativity Award, Paul had worked at Mona Meyer McGrath & Gavin PR (now Weber Shandwick), Minda Associates Advertising and Public Relations and Kamstra Communications. Paul won the IABC national Gold Quill for staging the “biggest food fight since the Boston Tea Party,” engaged Dueling Elvis Presley impersonators for M & M/Mars Chocolate, launched the World’s Largest Rubberband Ball for OfficeMax, and created the Kemps Sound of Mooing Contest, which asked America’s singers to moo popular music like cows. Follow him at @maccabeepr or learn more at www.maccabee.com