Stockholm Criminal Court warrants, rumors that the US Senate will dub Julian Assange a “transnational threat”, conspiracy theories, and all other charges aside, the international transparency vessel that is WikiLeaks started sending out mayday signals the day that Daniel Domscheit-Berg (alias Daniel Schmitt) stepped down as spokesperson for WikiLeaks. I believe that many of the organizations problems began when founder and spokesperson became one-and-the-same.
Careful searching has unearthed zero articles where anyone challenges Assange’s intelligence, in fact just the opposite. In a recent New York Times article by John Burns and Ravi Somaiya “WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety”, it is noted that friends claim he has a near genius I.Q. and wouldn’t he need to in order “to establish WikiLeaks, redefining whistle-blowing by gathering secrets in bulk, storing them beyond the reach of governments and others determined to retrieve them, then releasing them instantly, and globally”? Birgitta Jónsdóttir a Member of Parliament in Iceland and WikiLeaks volunteer said in the same New York Times piece, “He’s very unique and extremely capable.”
What is on record, much to the displeasure of Assange, is that he exhibits “erratic and imperious behavior, and a nearly delusional grandeur unmatched by an awareness that the digital secrets he reveals can have a price in flesh and blood.” It appears at times as though Julian Assange is at war with the media. He has walked out of interviews with CNN and struck back at the NY Times, for what Burns calls “absolutely standard journalistic endeavor.” There are few arguments I have found that exemplify the importance of the work of my fellow communications professionals than the strikingly impetuous behavior, amateur spokesman skills and very public personal woes of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange. I am fairly convinced that if he had employed a professional spokesperson WikiLeaks might be in a better place. Had Julian Assange had an advisor they might have suggested the following commonly considered approaches for judging the appropriateness of one’s communication:
· How would I feel if what I just said showed up on the front page of the newspaper?
· What is my gut feeling about what I am about to say?
· What would my role model do in this situation?
· What repercussions might I face legally for what I am about to say?
· What would my organizations code of conduct suggest in this situation?
Such advice would be rudimentary though, not taking into account timing, audience, context, verbal and non-verbal communication skills, and medium at the very least. A crisis communication specialist might suggest that the spokesperson should think through management decisions, know how management might falter given the emotion involved in a crisis, what types of mistakes they might make and consider ways that they might avoid costly mistakes, no small task when one is at the center of crisis. Finally, one has to be prepared to deal with the casualties of crisis. Again, simple as it sounds in approach many executives would probably gloss over this in a time of crisis while struggling to manage important details (as they see it) which may not translate well to their audiences either because of the way the message is crafted or because of the way in which it is delivered.
I recently spoke with a former senior US Department of Homeland Security Communications professional, who dealt with a communication crisis or two during her time. Although she vehemently disagrees with the work of Assange, saying, “there is a fine line between sharing information with the public and maintaining national security. That line exists for good reason to maintain the safety and security of our nation” she was quick to offer advice and quick to agree that not all executives make good spokespeople. “How someone handles himself in a crisis can make or break an organization. Crisis situations can often go from bad to worse if the leadership has not thought about crisis planning or engaged in basic training.” Personal opinion aside (N.B for Mr. Assange a good communication professional can put politics and personal opinion aside and still offer advice which lay people sometimes have difficulty with), she had the following to say about executives serving as spokespeople:
“It is of the utmost importance for organizations to have someone who can step back from the issue, a person who has a working relationship with the press and understands the importance of transparency --being open and honest while -- and can, at the same time, ensure that they are staying true to their organizations ethics and values. In many cases, the head of the organization focuses on management and executing the details of the day-to-day operations but a communications professional can step back. We know how to construct a message and communicate that to the public or to the media at the right time. We are trained to put information in a clear and concise way, ensuring that there is no confusion and very few managers and professionals are trained to do that and even fewer are trained to handle the unique set of issues that arise in a crisis situation.”
The lesson we learn from WikiLeaks in general and Mr. Assange in particular is you cannot assume that because you have information, a captive world audience, and the ability to speak that you are the best person to represent your organization. Every speaker comes with a certain amount of baggage; communications professionals wear that baggage differently, minimize it and make the message stand out. Right now, the only messages on WikiLeaks coming through loud and clear are about Julian Assange.
Photo courtesy of Flickr user jdlasica
- Information and Communication Technologies
- WikiLeaks Founder on the Run, Trailed by Notoriety
- US Senate
- US national security
- US Department of Homeland Security
- Stockholm Criminal Court
- Ravi Somaiya
- non-verbal communication
- New Yok Times
- Julian Assange
- John Burns
- Daniel Schmitt
- Daniel Domscheit-Berg
- crisis communication
- Birgitta Josdottir