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Leaks: Two Maxims to Follow

I’ve been following a small dialog between Jon Arnold and Garrett Smith on blogger ethics, arising from a Globe story about how an individual going by the pseudonym Boy Genius has been gleefully revealing secrets about RIM’s upcoming Blackberry Pearl on enGadget.

I guarantee that RIM isn’t happy.  A couple of months ago I had the opportunity to see one of the Pearl prototypes, up close, hold it in my hand, play with it and so on, and security was tight.  Rumour had it that RIM employees had been instructed not to use the devices outside buildings in case an enterprising photographer from the Kitchener-Waterloo Record happened to be stationed nearby with a long lens.

And, equally, I am sure that Boy Genius, whoever he is, is in violation of an NDA.  NDAs, however, aren’t worth much and most people signing them know that.  Maxim 1: an NDA is only as good as the relationship you have with the signer.  If you trust the person with your confidential information, then an NDA will hold.  If you don’t… well, sit down with a lawyer and try to figure out what the damage you suffered due to to violation was, and then figure out whether you want to go to the expense of prosecuting.

Is this really an issue of ethics? Some blogs, including enGadget, have an investigative journalism focus.  A while back, for instance, Andy Abramson obtained a copy of a lawsuit filed against Skype.  He broke the news.  Should he have done that? Sure. That’s why people read him.  Now, Andy’s case was a little different because the information was public, having been filed at a courthouse, but nobody had broken the story yet.   To me, enGadget is doing what readers of enGadget expect — finding the news about the latest hot gadgets, and reporting it.

Having lived through many leaks during my time at Microsoft, my opinion is that they’re rarely harmful, most certainly never fatal.  If that leak is widely reported, it shows real interest in your product.  Many times a leak can actually increase interest in the product, creating pent-up demand prior to launch. Both are good things. 

Leaks are a pain, especially to those orderly marketing types who now to have to revise their plans. By now, they’ve had three weeks of running around with their hair on fire trying to figure out how to shut this guy up. I say, suck it up guys — that’s what management pays you for! Your challenge now is to find ways to convert those “Boy Genius” leaks into value. That’s what I would do. 

The lesson for all marketers is simple. Maxim 2: Leaks happen.  Plan accordingly.

{ 4 comments… add one }

  • Garrett Smith August 31, 2006, 6:59 am

    Alec:

    What makes this entire story "mysterious" and interesting is that marketers have been known to "leak" stories on purpose in the past to build a buzz for their product/service.

    By nature, blogs are the perfect avenue to for companies to leak product information and with the type of traffic and attention Engadget gets, I am not totally convinced that Boy Genius violated an NDA. I am of the thought that RIM could intentionally have leaked the information to not only build buzz on the web, but to get the "leak" story into more mainstream mediums to draw great awareness and anticipation of their new product.

    Not that far fetched, though you do know more about RIM…

  • Alec August 31, 2006, 7:14 am

    Too true, Garrett. I rather suspected the same on August 10th when I wrote about the leak initially. Engadget claimed to have an embargoed press release dated mid september. That sets off alarm bells. Press releases don't get circulated 6 weeks in advance in my experience.

  • Alex Kazim August 31, 2006, 4:27 pm

    Have to disagree — this is all about ethics:

    1. Damage can be done on a leak of non-public information. For example, let's say the leak was actually a prototype that the company wasn't planning on shipping. At Apple, we had fully functional prototypes that didn't ship for one reason or the other. If the leak is inaccurate, and it's a publicly-traded company, all hell can break loose.

    2. Most bloggers aren't journalists, even the more famous ones. Journalists have ethics: they fact-check, they get corrobration, they use terms like "alleged" as opposed to "it's a fact", and they don't cast their subjective opinions on stories (at least, they try not to). To me, blogs are op/ed. I know I should stop reading them, but it's kind of like the Enquirer 😉

    Alex

  • Alec August 31, 2006, 6:55 pm

    Hey Alex, I will respectfully disagree with the ethics point, but would agree with the prototype scenario you brought up. Many times those have leaked, and not just at apple.

    As for bloggers not being journalists — it depends on who you read. Mathew ingram, Mark Evans, Om Malik — these folks are definitely journalists. They even play them on their day jobs. Now, there are a lot of wannabe pundits out there, thundering from their pulpits. You have to decide which ones have value to you.

    Cheers,

    A

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