Protecting Reputation: Steps to Take in the Face of Leaked Internal Memos

By Eric Rose

This recent headline would make any crisis communicator cringe: “Amazon’s plans to advance its interests in California laid bare in leaked memo.”

The story, which unfolded through a leaked internal memo, shed light on Amazon’s growth strategy in the Southern California region and its 2024 internal community outreach plans. As the media covered the story, it became apparent that the leaked document, while not containing anything illegal, raised eyebrows due to its mention of specific elected officials with whom it intends to strengthen relationships and build trust through community engagement and donations. Understandably, this can be perceived as questionable by the public.

The incident is rife with implications for crisis communications, public and government affairs, and good old-fashioned PR. It’s a situation that merits a closer look.

Amazon’s Response: Leading With Transparency

It’s important to note that Amazon’s response was commendable, considering the potentially damaging nature of the written content. When confronted with the issue, the company acknowledged the document’s authenticity, opting for transparency throughout the process. What could have been a crisis turned into an opportunity for the tech giant to showcase its commitment to philanthropy.

In their official response, Amazon pointed to their philanthropic endeavors, noting that “Partnerships with community leaders and stakeholders help guide how Amazon gives back.” The leaked memo was not ideal, but the company reiterated its intention to support the communities where it operates, emphasizing a responsive approach tailored to the unique needs of each community. The act of reiterating their commitment to community support served as more than just damage control; it became a reaffirmation of Amazon’s values.

Navigating the Delicate Terrain of Leaked Memos

Numerous companies have grappled with the unwelcome exposure of leaked documents, often mishandling the situation from a communication standpoint. Conducting a Google search with the query “an internal memo seen by” shows pages of results showcasing a diverse array of stories. This spectrum spans from highly sensitive and potentially embarrassing revelations for organizations to information that, while widely known within business circles, carries minimal, if any, significant reputational consequences.

The prevalence of such internal memos appearing in news stories and online underscores the challenges organizations face in maintaining the confidentiality of their internal communications. These leaked memos often provide a glimpse into the inner workings of companies, exposing a range of information, from strategic decisions and operational changes to nuanced insights into corporate culture.

The implications of these leaks can vary widely for organizations. In some cases, the leaked content may lead to substantial reputational damage, requiring strategic damage control measures. Conversely, some revelations may not carry significant consequences but still contribute to the broader narrative surrounding corporate transparency and communication practices.

Organizations are navigating a landscape where internal communications can quickly become public knowledge in an era of heightened information flow and digital connectivity. This reality emphasizes the importance of robust communication strategies and the need for a proactive approach to managing public perceptions when internal memos find their way into the public domain.

Unwanted Spotlight: Companies’ Responses to Leaked Information

The following instances underscore the importance of vigilance and strategic responsiveness when confronted with leaked information.

United Airlines

The recent leak of an internal memo from United Airlines sheds light on a heightened focus on cabin crews, emphasizing their need to give customers an image of attentiveness. The directive within the memo is explicit: crews cannot effectively fulfill their duty of being attentive to customers if they are on their smartphones. “Use of a personal electronic device and/or accessories is not permitted while customers are on board the aircraft, with the exception of crew rest,” the memo said.

Despite the proliferation of articles covering the leaked memo, United Airlines has refrained from responding to media requests for comments. This silence is noteworthy—and not good, especially considering United must have anticipated that the widespread circulation of a memo would likely make its way into the media.


Last year, Phil Spencer, the head of Xbox at Microsoft, was forced to address a significant Xbox-related leak associated with the FTC v. Microsoft case. In an internal memo addressed to Microsoft employees, Spencer acknowledged the inadvertent disclosure of confidential documents and expressed disappointment within the organization. He emphasized that the leaked documents did not necessarily align with the Xbox’s current trajectory and attributed the discrepancies to the evolving nature of the company’s plans over time.

In a post on X (formerly Twitter), Spencer wrote:

We’ve seen the conversation around old emails and documents. It is hard to see our team’s work shared in this way because so much has changed and there’s so much to be excited about right now, and in the future. We will share the real plans when we are ready.

Spencer encouraged a nuanced perspective, urging consideration of the documents’ age and cautioned against drawing immediate conclusions or forming expectations based solely on the leaked information. This acknowledgment aimed to mitigate any precipitous reactions or premature expectations stemming from the exposed details.


According to a leaked internal memo from Bloomberg, IBM has instructed its managers to reduce remote work to safeguard their positions. The directive specifically mandates that US managers physically report to an office or client location for at least three days each week and  said it intends to leverage badge-in data to “assess individual presence.”

Using good crisis communication practices, IBM openly acknowledged the memo’s existence. In response to media inquiries, the company’s said that it was “focused on providing a work environment that balances flexibility with the face-to-face interactions.”

Takeaways and Lessons

In an era where information effortlessly spans the globe, the potential impact of information leaks reaching the media poses a significant threat to businesses. To navigate these challenges, companies can proactively prepare through crisis communications planning.

If an organization lacks a crisis communications plan, it is crucial to develop one. This involves:

  • Identifying key decision-makers during a crisis
  • Formulating clear messaging
  • Determining target audiences for communication
  • Anticipating potential reactions in the event of unfavorable news reaching the media

While crisis communication plans may not offer a step-by-step guide for every scenario, they provide a valuable framework for making informed decisions amid challenging circumstances.

Effectively managing such situations requires communicators to closely monitor the public and internal reactions elicited by the disclosed information and act promptly. It is imperative to acknowledge the leaked information openly and, most importantly, to provide a transparent and comprehensive explanation to stakeholders.

In times of information leaks, the communication strategy should transcend mere damage control and be geared toward fostering trust and understanding. Swift response, acknowledgment, and clear communication not only mitigate potential reputational damage but also lay the groundwork for rebuilding confidence among stakeholders. A proactive approach that addresses the information head-on demonstrates a commitment to transparency and accountability, which is crucial in maintaining positive relationships with the concerned parties.

By incorporating these principles into crisis communication protocols, organizations can navigate the complexities of information leaks more effectively, demonstrating resilience and reinforcing their commitment to ethical and transparent practices. Here are some general rules for organizations to follow when confronted with communication leaks:

  • Take a proactive approach in the face of leaked confidential documents. Highlight positive initiatives to counter potential misconceptions and set the record straight. Correct inaccuracies promptly to prevent lingering misinformation challenges.
  • Openly acknowledge the authenticity of leaked documents. Reinforce commitment to community support for effective crisis navigation. Transform crisis into an opportunity to reaffirm corporate values and dedication to responsible citizenship.
  • Use a crisis as a platform to showcase dedication to responsible corporate citizenship (if applicable). Mitigate reputational damage by emphasizing transparency, accountability and community well-being. Strategic responses can turn challenges into testimonials of commitment to the communities served.

Managing communications leaks is crucial in media relations. For significant leaks, a well-prepared crisis framework is vital. It must be built on an ethical business foundation to withstand public scrutiny. Every organization should anticipate internal news leaks and ensure that memos to large groups are reader-friendly for an external audience. In many organizations, news spreads rapidly, even when initially shared with a select few.

Eric W. Rose is a partner at EKA and specializes in crisis communication and reputation management.

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