WikiLeaks – Brand Killer or Brand Builder?

Until the publication of documents about the war in Afghanistan, I’d never paid attention to WikiLeaks (please note that the service to the U.S. hosted site is down – read more). But, with the recent publication of information about U.S. diplomatic correspondence, I decided it was about time to research WikiLeaks and better understand both the websites’ mission and methods.

Surprising Facts

  • The WikiLeaks website was launched in 2006.
  • WikiLeaks is a non-profit media organization.
  • The founder and public face of WikiLeaks is Julian Assange (Australian) who runs Sunshine Press.
  • WikiLeaks has broke a number of high profile stories and won several awards.
  • WikiLeaks primary website server is in Sweden which has strong laws to protect whistle-blowers.
  • Julian Assange is apparently leading the race for Time’s “2010 Person of the Year” award.

Question – Is WikiLeaks actually good for Brand America or is it bad?

In prior posts, I’ve commented on the importance of communities behaving in a way that is consistent with their brand promise. Authentic behavior always speaks louder than unsupported rhetoric. In theory, anything that helps a community behave authentically can be viewed as a good thing.

Thomas Jefferson may have argued WikiLeaks is good for Brand America.

“Our liberty cannot be guarded but by the freedom of the press, nor that be limited without danger of losing it.” –Thomas Jefferson to John Jay, 1786.

“No government ought to be without censors, and where the press is free, no one ever will. If virtuous, it need not fear the fair operation of attack and defence. Nature has given to man no other means of sifting out the truth whether in religion, law or politics. I think it as honorable to the government neither to know nor notice its sycophants or censors, as it would be undignified and criminal to pamper the former and persecute the latter.” –Thomas Jefferson to George Washington, 1792.

“I am… for freedom of the press, and against all violations of the Constitution to silence by force and not by reason the complaints or criticisms, just or unjust, of our citizens against the conduct of their agents.” –Thomas Jefferson to Elbridge Gerry, 1799.

But, should WikiLinks be thought of in the same manner?  Recent articles suggest the question is not as straightforward as it was back in the 18th century.

Today’s leaders see WikiLeaks as bad for Brand America.

“This disclosure is not just an attack on America’s foreign policy interests.  It is an attack on the international community — the alliances and partnerships, the conversations and negotiations, that safeguard global security and advance economic prosperity.” – Hillary Rodham Clinton

“Transparency is fundamental to our society, and it’s usually essential — but there are a few areas, including diplomacy, where it isn’t essential.” – Benjamin Netanyahu

“This is clearly not an act for the public good.  It is not justifiable in any way, shape for form.” – James Carafano

“If, as a nation, we want to engage in diplomacy or intelligence collection, we need the capacity to preserve secrecy. You cannot conduct diplomatic negotiations in public.” – Steven Aftergood

LinkedIn poll respondents see Wikileaks as bad for Brand America

According to the respondents of a poll I ran on LinkedIn.  The poll had 102 responses.  The results should be viewed as directional, but caution should be exercised before projecting the results too broadly.

Overall Results – WikiLeaks is seen as a brand destroyer or as having a neutral impact.

Overall WikiLeaks Survey Response

Age Results – Some older responders see the potential of WikiLeaks as a brand builder.

Age Details Survey Response

Job Function – Finance Managers are convinced WikiLeaks is a brand destroyer

Job Function Details Survey Response

Job Title – The majority of Managers see WikiLeaks as either a bad thing or having a neutral impact.

Job Title Details Survey Response

My point-of-view?

I think the impact of WikiLeaks on Brand America may actually be dependant on how the situation is ultimately managed. In some respects it is similar to the Tylenol tampering incident. Johnson & Johnson managed the situation in a way that protected the Tylenol brand and ultimately strengthened it through implementation of tamper evident packaging and passage of federal anti-tampering laws.  In fact, an article in the Washington Post reported, “Johnson & Johnson has effectively demonstrated how a major business ought to handle a disaster.” For perspective, at the time of the scare the market share of Tylenol was reported to have collapsed from 35% to 8%. But, it rebounded in less than a year after, a result credited to J&J’s prompt reaction that was authentic with their corporate credo. In November, it reintroduced capsules but in a new, triple-sealed package, coupled with heavy price promotions and within several years, Tylenol had become the most popular over-the-counter analgesic in the US.

If laws were broken in obtaining secret information, I certainly think the legal system should be fully leveraged and the perpetrators given the benefit of appropriate due process. As the saying goes – if you did the crime, you do the time.

But, I also worry that mismanagement of the most current crisis created by WikiLinks may do more harm to Brand America’s global image than ultimate good.  The potential for damage is clearly present.

Part of the Brand America promise is our unflagging defense of the Constitution of the United States of America.  The First Amendment to the United States Constitution prohibits the making of any law “respecting an establishment of religion“, impeding the free exercise of religion, infringing on the freedom of speech, infringing on the freedom of the press, interfering with the right to peaceably assemble or prohibiting the petitioning for a governmental redress of grievances.

How does the country that staunchly supports freedom of the press successfully manage through this situation in a way that clearly demonstrates consistency with that belief?

I am not posing the question from a legal vantage point, but rather from a brand image perspective.  For example, will N.Y Congressman Peter King’s approach of classifying WikiLeaks as a terrorist organization, and separately to criminally charge Julian Assange under the Espionage Act be viewed as authentic with the Brand America promise?  Or, should we respond more in line with U.S. Defense of Secretary Robert Gates belief that the impact will be fairly modest. My guess is this situation is likely to get uglier before it gets better.  But, regardless of how it is ultimately resolved, WikiLeaks has delivered an excellent case study to illustrate the connection between diplomacy and place branding.

What is your opinion?

Please leave a comment and share your perspective.  By sharing, you help everybody get a better learning experience.

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16 Comments so far

  1. Des Walsh

    December 3, 2010

    It’s an interesting way of framing the current contretemps, Ed. My hunch, for what it’s worth as a foreign observer and happy to be known as a friend of the US, is that the smart money will be on Secretary Gates’ assessment.

    Our Australian government is evidently worried about the damage to Brand Australia. In recent days the Attorney General has asked the Federal Police to have a look at what’s happening and see if there is a case for having Assange’s passport cancelled. I’m not a lawyer but that looks like a bit of political posing to me. And I guess Jeffrey Bleich the very successful lawyer who is the US Ambassador here and good friend of President Obama is well aware that talking about cancelling the guy’s passport without being able to point to any Australian law he has broken would be drawing a long bow.

    For the trivia nuts, it could be noted that Assange’s outfit is called Sunshine Press. Knowing he comes from the State of Queensland I assumed immediately that he was from the Sunshine Coast region in that state, a tourist and retirement focused region, and a quick search confirmed that to be the case, also that his mother lives there and runs a puppet theater in the upscale resort town of Noosa. Not from the mean streets, our guy.

  2. David Michael

    December 4, 2010

    The impact on Brand America will depend more on how the US reacts to WikiLeaks than WikiLeaks itself. The US has built an envious brand image over the past two centuries or more (since Jefferson and others etc) of tolerance, freedom and transparency. If it now decides that humiliation of a couple of leading power brokers is unacceptable and a threat to global security and economic prosperity then this will almost certainly damage the image of brand America. I am yet to see how WikiLeaks has threatened global security or threatened prosperity, but I can see that it may threaten established power bases that have hitherto remained well protected.

  3. Diedra Freedman

    December 4, 2010

    Interesting perspective. I think Robert Gates is correct that as far as US foreign policy goes, in the long run the damage is not as harmful as some may think.

    What I find most insightful about your perspective is that if government really worked the way you advocate it should (much more like a well run business), there wouldn’t be a problem because either a) the gov’t would be proactive so that there was no leak or b) after the leak the gov’t would use its resources to fix the problem, learn from it & be proactive so that it didn’t happen again while doing its best to get the word out about how gov’t is repairing the damage, now being proactive & thus repairing its brand.

    Unfortunately, no matter how much talk there is about re-inventing gov’t, it just isn’t happening. All levels of gov’t remain in serious trouble because even though politicians & bureaucrats claim they are listening especially to American voters, they aren’t. (You already discussed American gov’t’s listening challenges in your blog entry re: Jim Zogby’s observations about America’s failure to really listen to the Arab perception of the US.) Also, voters & elected policymakers have very unrealistic expectations of how gov’t operates, the true cost of all they expect gov’t to do & the true consequences of any changes.

    Using the example of the current AZ Medicaid cuts that dropped organ transplants from the list of covered procedures, AZ’s elected policymakers were briefed meticulously by their staff on reality (A friend just left her job as the AZ House Minority Caucus Healthcare Policy Analyst & she confirms this. The cost/benefit risk analysis was clearly spelled out before the Medicaid cuts were voted on by the Legislature & signed by the Governor.) so it shouldn’t be any surprise to AZ’s elected policymakers that people on Medicaid who need organ transplants & don’t get them will die.

    What AZ’s elected policymakers didn’t believe is that after the press hammered them, the AZ voters would object to the Medicaid cuts removing organ transplants from covered services. After SB1070 (re: illegal immigration), AZ’s elected policymakers thought they were Teflon with the AZ voters. Unfortunately, AZ’s elected policymakers didn’t listen to these same voters who passed a 1% sales tax in May to pay for education & just told AZ’s elected policymakers last month that they couldn’t sweep the funds for 0-6 early education funding (First Things First) raised by tobacco taxes into the AZ General Fund. AZ voters are willing to fund some social services, healthcare & education. AZ’s elected policymakers just have to listen & figure out which services.

    However, that’s not what will happen in AZ. The gov’t won’t really listen to AZ voters & will enact further business tax cuts & spend more money on what it thinks is “branding” while businesses still will refuse to come to AZ because AZ’s elected policymakers refuse to fund the social service, health & education services that are important to business’ future employees & AZ’s current voters.

    This is happening all over America, not just in AZ. Until we actually change the way gov’t operates, it will be the same old, same old no matter how much we try to brand it differently.

  4. Andrei Bujaki

    December 6, 2010

    On short term yes makes damages . In long term has quite opposite result , because the so called wikileaks revelation of documents strengthened the ideea that the US policy its a right one and that the US its not the main evil on the this planet
    Assange in his stupidity created the most brilliant marketing campaign ever for America Brand and US .

  5. Andrei Bujaki

    December 6, 2010

    The hidden effect of the revelation is that some officials will stop doing politics instead of security

  6. Brent Teague, MBA

    December 6, 2010

    Wikileaks is a work of genius. If the inputs, and the product(s) beneath your brand image are quality (and better than your competitors) – then, by God, wikileaks will drive your brand sales stronger and faster than your competitors.

    I noticed those “leaders” quoted who believe wikileaks to be a negative or detrimental press resource are deeply entrenched politically. This tells me that their lack of appreciation for transparency might indicate they have something to hide regarding their personal policy agenda or motives.

    Personally, my past behavior has often been non-exemplary, but I’ve reached a point in my life where my motives are pure and anyone who wants to judge me based on past mistakes is FREE TO DO SO.

    When people in leadership decide to let go of their pre-concieved “power bases,” and embrace peace, encouragement, and the love of humanity – then we can all enjoy the freedom of life so desperately sought by the American counter-culture of the 1960s. This is not to say “anything goes,” so much as people who believe they must lead by being a bully should really re-think their position – because the rest of us are pretty much done accepting leaders who willfully step over everyone else (especially when they’re unqualified to do the job at hand).

    I agree with T.J. and G.W. from days of old. Their insight wasn’t just for their time in history – – – It is a timeless principle for all humanity, forever.

    If you’re a leader and you’re hiding something, anything, you’d better start developing a personal exit strategy so you can bow out gracefully, otherwise it could be hell for you to let go of your power base later when you are found out.

    Many leaders of corporations based in the USA strategically placed manufacturing operations in countries where there are no legal protections regarding labor abuse. It would be great to see this type of leadership style eliminated once and for all, globally.

    So much more can be said on the value of transparency. Honestly, wikileaks is really just beginning to scratch the surface of the injustices in the very, very small neighborhood of our world.

    I salute you Mr. Assange on a job well done!!!


  7. Ijaz Rana

    December 6, 2010

    Ed, I am not sure if it is going to be damaging for USA or otherwise. But I am sure that it certainly is going to have some impact, somehow.
    I hope the after effects are by & large good.
    Best Regards.

  8. Don Holbrook

    December 7, 2010

    I was thinking about this WikiLeaks situation and it really does border on the freedom of the press issue. Our freedoms are fragile yet rigid. I don’t think restricting the press is our role but I do feel that those working for government that release information such as this are acting under the treason act. These sensitive documents are entrusted to these folks to protect our national interest, allow us to guide our national interests in a confidential format and can have a destructive force that is harmful to our national interests and possibly our intelligence assets in the field. Under these conditions I think those that leak such information should be tried for treason and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. if people within WikiLeaks are bribing those folks then they are also guilty of treason, but if the news comes voluntarily and without compensation then it is just a news leak and it needs to be corrected by the U.S.

  9. David Lukshus

    December 7, 2010

    Thanks, Ed. This has been a stimulating forum for an equally fascinating topic. The information released by WikiLeaks is neither a Killer nor Builder of Brand America. However, the response — from our elected leaders, to community leaders, to heads of households — will determine one or the other. Disasters, both natural and man-made, happen. No one person, community, country, nor Brand is exempt. While the events of — and responses to — Darfur, Hurricane Katrina, the BP/Transocean/Halliburton spill, among others, would be appropriate to study in this case, the Tylenol tampering incident is a great example to bring up because it shows us that a brand rooted in ethics, and managed by virtuous, committed, and disciplined stewards, can withstand a catastrophic event. J&J managed their crisis with a vigorous, yet nuanced, execution of the Company’s core values. Without such a strong foundation, twice the “response”, no matter how emotional and heartfelt (with apologies to U.S. Representative Peter King), would probably have resulted in rapid brand erosion. Yes, we should safeguard our intelligence assets, upgrade our encryption, and explore legal action against WikiLeaks. ASAP! But we also owe it to Brand America to respond to the greater opportunity that was created by WikiLeaks, and we should do so in a manner that is rooted in our values, our history, and our Constitution. It’ll be hard work, but if we exercise such discipline, in the end Brand America will be stronger.

  10. Dinesh Ranawaka

    December 7, 2010

    WikiLeaks will be good for brand America and any other country in the sense that they know they can at anytime be held accountable for their actions, or conversations. From a politician’s standpoint, WikiLeaks can only be bad. The world is in the state it’s in today for a large part because politicians, and governments in general, have been allowed to act without consequence or safeguard. The entire concept of the fourth estate has been rendered void due to ownership by the private and public sectors. WikiLeaks is a step back in the right direction.

    As for whether WikiLeaks could be bad for the Wiki brand, well the Wiki brand is based on the concept of being open-source, for the people by the people etc. WikiLeaks exemplifies this brand image perfectly.

  11. David Berger

    December 9, 2010

    WikiLeaks is either good nor bad for the USA.
    The US do not need bad or good press, but only to pursue their national interests, which are most compatible with the interests of the Western community.

  12. Bisi

    December 10, 2010

    WikiLeaks should be used for promoting good cause not opening dead wounds…it’s freedom of information you say but some things are better left untouched…for the betterment of mankind.
    use WikiLeaks to promote love.

  13. Dean Barber

    December 17, 2010

    Aside from the fact that WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange is generally viewed as a creep, I pose this question:

    What surprises you from the documents dump? The fact that a majority of Arab nations privately hope we take on Iran? (I’m not saying that’s a good idea.) That our diplomats gossip that Libyan Leader Muammar Qaddafi travels with a voluptuous blonde nurse? That French President Nicolas Sarkozy called Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov a liar?

    Seriously, what bombshell state secrets have been revealed that sticks out in your mind?

    My point is this. We make a lot of documents secret that truly are not earth shattering and shouldn’t be classified. Mind you, I am not in favor of releasing documents showing troop movements or any sort of pending military actions to would and or could harm the lives of our servicemen and women. I also would not want to see our intelligence assets compromised or endangered.

    But just what damage did this leak of classified documents, this resulting transparency do to our nation? A lot of smoke, a lot of hype, but, referring to a 70s ad campaign, “where’s the beef?”

    Aside from the creep, who may go to jail on unrelated sex crimes, what we might take from this is our government’s penchant for secrecy, which in many cases are truly not defensible.

    The American public is not dumb. Our citizenry usually get it right over the long term when armed with the facts. I care not for the future of Wikileaks, but I would like to see more of a transparency so that the American people can get it right and pressure our elected officials accordingly.


    December 17, 2010

    The real scandal is the incompetence of the US Secretary of State in keeping confidential communications confidential. The fact that a low level soldier could have access to this information and make copies does not inspire confidence in how the current crew is piloting the ship of state. As for Assange, he seems the usual sort of self-important, self-promoting blowhard. While his organization may have some utility for society, too often well-meaning activities are overshadowed by the egoism of their leaders.

  15. Yan

    December 17, 2010

    Thanks for offering such topic.
    I’m a fans of Wikileaks.
    Wikileaks is bad brand killer and new brand builder. We human being have the right and intrinsic nature to pursue truth and learn the truth.
    In business, morality is basic foundation for serving the consumers or clients. Cheating and Covering the truth is not allowed.
    If Wikileaks cannot be accepted, can we accept that we still live in a world full of Ponzi Scheme or Enron Case?
    He’s a defender of mass group with low power. Only the strong power with so many confidentials is frightened. State, Government, Wall Street…
    I’m looking forward to Wikileaks turning into a more professional institute to be a defender.

  16. Vitaly

    December 21, 2010

    I think Wikileaks is a kind of eye-opener for all normal people. People, which are sitting “on the top of this world” telling to others “their truth”. By doing this, they do not allow us, normal people, to do our own conclusions based on real facts. In other words they inerprete facts the way THEY NEED (for their business, political life etc). So, it’s a kind of manipulation.

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