On 3 Dec 2010, CNN reported that the White House Office of Management and Budget sent a memo “forbidding unauthorized federal government employees and contractors from accessing classified documents publicly available on WikiLeaks and other websites using computers or devices like BlackBerrys and smart phones.” The memo stated that the publishing by WikiLeaks does “not alter the documents’ classified status or automatically result in declassification of the documents. To the contrary, classified information, whether or not already posted on public websites or disclosed to the media remains classified, and must be treated as such by federal employees and contractors, until it is declassified by an appropriate U.S. Government authority.”
While I can understand the US Government’s legal intent to continue to maintain the security classification of the documents and hence maintain its case against Julian Assange, I think the approach of forbidding federal government employees and contractors from viewing the cables is an epic crisis communication mistake. This is because, like it or not, the information is already out there and instead of using finite resources to restrict employee usage, the US Government should instead be capitalising on it.
My proposal is simple. To win the battle for social media, the US Government must focus on achieving two things – (a) gaining and maintaining the information initiative; and (b) dominating the blogosphere by having information superiority. To do this, the US Government needs to embrace their employees (especially their employee bloggers) and convert them into “ambassadors” for the US Government. In this instance, federal government employees and contractors should be proactively engaged by their senior management to ensure their understanding of the principles and values of the US Government, the Government’s political and military objectives, the context within which the memos were written. It is only with this clearer understanding of “management’s thinking” will federal government employees and contractors be able to “speak up” (as third-party endorsements) and explain the rationale for the US Government’s actions.
In addition, if the US Government’s employee blogger numbers are large and their blogs well followed, their postings will then enable the US Government to gain the information initiative while simultaneously “drowning out” the anti-establishment voices giving the US Government information superiority in this crisis.
Hence, as I have advocated before in my earlier posts, I strongly believe that Internal Communications, and not Internal Censorship, is the key to gaining the upper hand in this cablegate crisis. The White House’s decision to forbid federal government employees and contractors from reading WikiLeaks cables is thus a bad decision that will hurt it in the long run.