NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- While enjoying the perks of immediate access to people and information across the globe, many forget its perils -- until a communications catastrophe occurs.
Most of us, regretfully, have performed some version of the following: hitting "send" on a sensitive email before realizing it is addressed to the wrong person or forgetting the content lurking at the end of an internal email chain and forwarding it to the client discussed. These are just two of many such harrowing examples. Realization of the mistake incites a feeling of nausea like no other. Receiving such an email creates an equally unpleasant pit in one's stomach.
The latest WikiLeaks fiasco has surely stopped heads of organizations across all sectors dead in their tracks. Leaders everywhere must cringe at the thought of their sensitive information in the wrong hands, pejorative emails about clients sent directly to them, or unprofessional internal communication surfacing in the public domain.
This latest WikiLeaks blunder included all of the above, causing our government to shift into damage control of the highest order. Shattered relationships, compromised proprietary information and damaged integrity are just a few of the potential consequences. Although this leak was executed with malice, inadvertent missteps can also wreak havoc on a grand scale. When confronted with your own communications crisis, consider the following.
Step 1 - Apologize:
Whether the leak came from you, your co-worker or your employee, take ownership of the mistake and express your genuine remorse. All actions within a firm reflect upon the owner of a business, so deflecting responsibility is not wise. Apologizing -- even groveling -- stands out as an important first step and should be embarked upon as swiftly and thoughtfully as possible. Sincerity is paramount, as most recipients of an apology can spot a disingenuous one instantly. If your subordinate was the perpetrator of the act, assure the recipient that the employee's opinions do not represent those of the firm and disciplinary actions are under way.
Step 2 - Explain without justifying:
Avoid justifying derogatory comments or insults. Rather, explain how the mindset at the time might have led to such inappropriate behavior. Humanity has its downsides, thus an appeal to the compassionate side of your colleague or customer (assuming there is one) may prove to be your best bet. Youthful inexperience, stress under deadlines, heated emotions, etc. have been blamed for worse, so in the absence of any legitimate scapegoat, one must offer other viable causes.
Step 3 - Make amends:
Finally, a peace offering -- a discount, attractive delivery terms, or your company's own version of white glove treatment -- should be extended, and extended promptly. Nothing says, "I'm sorry" like special treatment. Actions do speak louder than words, especially in business, and a firm's conduct after an incident of even egregious behavior reveals the true moral fiber of the firm.
But don't go overboard. Amid apologizing profusely and applying corporate band-aids to heal the wounds, be careful not to lose strength. As trite as the saying is, everyone does make mistakes, though some carry more damage in their wake. Be wary of the customer or colleague that seeks to take advantage of a mishap of any degree more than may be appropriate.
The flip side:
While it might be tempting to revel in the catbird seat as the recipient of another firm's bungle, tread carefully and consider long-term goals as well as any short-term desires to capitalize on the situation. Before reacting harshly, stop to consider whether or not the incident is worthy of the demise of the relationship -- and take a few days to ponder this point if necessary. A hand well played at this time can earn strategic loyalty points for a profitable ongoing relationship.
If you believe the sender to be sincere in his/her apology, then resist the temptation to shame him further. But, if the sender's approach to the whole debacle seems flippant, underscore the impact of the blunder to your firm to remind the parties of the gravity of the situation. As the dust settles, determine the value of holding a grudge, forgiving and moving on or offering a second chance (albeit with skepticism). If the firm takes appropriate measures to reassure your firm of its value as a client, then second chances are usually in order.
Whether the firm at fault or the firm affected, both sides of such a calamity usually realize that no leader in his/her right mind would knowingly cause a fiasco such as this. Even the toughest and most uncomfortable situations, when handled with integrity, can be kept from escalating if both parties maintain a spirit of cooperation and compromise. Catastrophes such as these can serve to create stronger relationships if both parties are sane, rational and willing to communicate. Let's just hope that our allies and adversaries are all of the above.