Thought Leadership

Loose lips sink ships: how to make business calls in public

By May 22, 2019 No Comments

It’s one of my biggest pet peeves: you’re quietly typing away in some coffee shop or airport lounge, when all of a sudden the person next to you starts shouting into their phone.

You’ve probably encountered them: the Loud Talker.

More than annoying.

Yes, the Loud Talker is annoying and disruptive—but most importantly, the Loud Talker is often sharing sensitive and confidential business information in a public place.

The Loud Talker can negatively impact your brand.

The responses to tweets like this do not disappoint. It seems like everyone has a story of what they’ve overheard and the kinds of information they’ve unwittingly been subjected to.

I’ve heard it all. Susan from Company X is getting fired today. There’s an important vote in the Legislature, but elected official Y has issues with the legislation. Company Z has an upcoming product launch, but the packaging isn’t ready and the supplier is scrambling. The list goes on.

Last week, while waiting to board a flight to San Francisco, a particularly obnoxious gentlemen (golf shirt, shiny corporate logo, tucked into pleated khakis—you know the drill) sitting in the cubicle next to me took a phone call on his speakerphone. Eventually I popped my head around the corner and politely asked him to keep it down. He was surprised, explaining that he didn’t know anyone was sitting next to him. I told him it was fine, and I was very sorry to hear about the restructuring at his company’s finance division.

What does the Loud Talker mean for corporate security?

Clients come to me for crisis communications management. It’s a fast-paced world, and much of the work is done over the phone. The jobs usually involve meeting clients at their offices, which sometimes means travel… which means little privacy to have sensitive conversations or to offer strategic advice.

One thing I have learned in 20 years working in marketing, public relations, political communications, and crisis communications: loose lips sink ships.

The person sitting next to you might be working for your competition. Their cousin may work for your competition. They might be a journalist. They might be a regulator. They might be an investor. They may be related to your CEO. Or they might just be nosy.

In any event, the airport/coffee shop/restaurant is not your boardroom, and you can’t know who is nearby listening to your business.

Here are 5 tips to help keep your business information confidential.

1. Find a quiet, empty place.

It sounds simple because it is. When I’m on the road, I like to stake out a quiet corner of the coffee shop, hotel lobby, or unoccupied airport gate. If you have access to an airport lounge, they often have small private rooms (complete with doors) you can use for up to 30 minutes.

2. Stop shouting!

That $1,200 smartphone in your hand? It has a wonderful little microphone built in. There’s no need to raise your voice. The other call participants can hear you just fine—and if we can’t, we’ll tell you so you can move somewhere with less ambient noise.

3. Can’t say it? Don’t say it.

If you are surrounded by strangers, but still need to convey some sensitive information, don’t hesitate to simply ask the person(s) on the other end of the call to wait a moment while you find some privacy. Asking people to wait might feel a little uncomfortable, but not as uncomfortable as having your information compromised.

4. Codewords are your friend.

Most corporate projects employ codewords that reveal nothing about the nature of the initiative. Some of my favourite public health projects were named Project Broomstick and Project Amberlight before they launched publicly.

If you absolutely must make a call in a public or semi-public place—that is, anywhere you’re surrounded by strangers—don’t be afraid to set some ground rules before the call. Agree upon a codeword, especially when talking about HR issues or publicly sensitive information. I’m a traditionalist: I like to use “our friend” when referring to a specific person, and “the mothership” when referring to a corporate HQ or company. By letting everyone know in advance, they understand what I’m talking about, and there’s no reason to overshare with nearby ears.

5. Treat your call security like you treat your IT security.

We regularly use passwords, firewalls, and corporate IT security protocols. It’s time we applied the same diligence to our public conversations.

In the wise words of Joseph Heller:

Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you.”

Paul Nixey is a communications consultant with more than 20 years’ experience in public relations, marketing, content management, and crisis communications. He speaks quietly into a headset while sitting away from you, and tweets at @PaulNixey.

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