Kara Swisher

Recent Posts by Kara Swisher

Yahoo’s Top Lawyer Says Leaked Internal Memos Are “Uncool” (According to — Oops — A Cool Leaked Internal Memo)

At Yahoo’s Friday regular weekly FYI meeting for employees, one of the topics for its Q&A moderation system that got read in front of the crowd was that there should be a “shout-out” to recently promoted general counsel Ron Bell for his new hardline public stance against leaks at the company.

It was a reference to an internal memo that the longtime Yahoo lawyer sent last week to all employees, titled “Leaks Uncool,” in response to the umpteenth company missive that had somehow gotten out into the wild.

The particular memo that got Bell in a huff was one CEO Marissa Mayer sent out to staffers last week, related to the closing of the sale of part of Yahoo’s stake in China’s Alibaba Group. It was quickly published by Business Insider.

That the exact same wording was in a public press release sent out moments later, or — more to the point — that the detailed news of the transaction’s culmination had already been reported by me here a week before, seems not to have mattered to Bell.

Also off-limits for sharing, or else, he warned: Internal presentations and emails, confidential product and business plans, and revenue projections.

“It’s never OK to share information in an internal memo EVEN if the company issues public communications about the same subject,” tsk-tsked Bell, who reminded staff of Yahoo’s Code of Ethics. “We will fire employees who leak company confidential information and we will avail ourselves of all other legal remedies to protect those confidences.”

Jeepers, I better lob a call in to Ally McBeal, stat!

(Hypocrite alert: It’s also kind of fascinating, since that would also put at least one of Yahoo’s current and most active board members in the line of Bell’s fire, too, noted several sources, given previous reliance on encouraging leaking at the company.)

More ominously, Bell also dangled the possibility of jail time, tossing in the memo that employees making disclosures could be a “criminal offense.”

Wrote Bell: “If you do it, you can go to jail and face a very large fine.”

The jail part of Bell’s assertion was mostly a pre-Halloween scare, and also largely a canard, since every bit of information in the Alibaba memo had already been made public many times over.

Still, he pressed on, patting management on the back for “working hard to create an environment in which we share much more information with all of you than we’ve ever shared before.”

Actually, Yahoo has had a long record of giving employees lots and lots of information, whether it be on its Backyard comment system or via its once informative and quite adorkable Yodel Anecdotal corporate blog.

In my experience covering the company since the mid-1990s — that’s right, folks, I have been here almost since the beginning (and I am here to stay) — and through some much tougher times, Yahoo management has not hidden away from employees.

Case in point: Yahoo co-founder and former CEO Jerry Yang, who has always been a stand-up guy and made a point of responding fully to Yahoos, even if not every utterance was perfect.

He didn’t like leaks, either, but such is the situation at Yahoo, which continues to be a riveting corporate drama of great interest both inside and outside the company.

(Even still, try being Apple for a day and see what real scrutiny is like from a constantly rabid media.)

Memo to Ron Bell: Humans like to talk and they like to share, especially at a media company.

Still, I do get the concern about keeping internal information secret and under wraps, and it certainly can sometimes impact business.

But — given all the other much more important stuff that management should be more concerned with at Yahoo, such as improving moribund results and making innovative products that consumers want to use — it’s a silly, mean-spirited and even frivolous focus.

If Yahoo’s new team actually managed to turn the company around, even a mountain of leaked memos wouldn’t matter one iota.

But, like politicians who would rather bash the media than actually fix our nation’s problems, it’s easier to point fingers.

Which brings me to the one line in Bell’s memo that really was irksome and simply wrong: “Leakers put their personal agendas ahead of everyone else’s and directly undermine trust.”

It was followed by his urging employees to drop a dime on other employees, “if you know something about a leak or how it happened.”

Hey Javert, let me clue you in on something: Almost all Yahoos who send me information about what’s happening at the company have done so because they care about it deeply and have wanted much-needed change to happen as Yahoo’s fortunes have inexorably declined over the years.

It was those employees who first warned me, for example, about the critical problems in the regime of CEO Carol Bartz, and those employees who helped me ferret out troublesome issues around the false resume of Scott Thompson.

Instead of ratting out fellow workers, Yahoos might want to thank them for that, since, in both instances, the lackluster and incompetent board of Yahoo did not act — even with the massive damage being done — until forced to by increasing media and investor pressure.

Now there’s the possibility for hope in a mostly new board and a new CEO and a new strategy to be unveiled tomorrow to staff.

In order to start fresh and be successful in making much-needed changes, yammering on about memo-leaking betrayals and conducting a variety of mole hunts (and management is surely doing that using a variety of sneaky tech tools) seems both petty and, well, pointless.

In addition, most of the internal memos aren’t really that juicy, anyway, no matter how many “YAHOO! PROPRIETARY AND CONFIDENTIAL INFORMATION — DO NOT FORWARD, SHARE, OR REDISTRIBUTE” notes you slap on them.

In any case, as Ralph Waldo Emerson once wrote: “Curiosity is lying in wait for every secret.”

So true — but if that’s not enough, I would offer some words of advice from Benjamin Franklin, our nation’s first and best journalist: “Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead.”

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Nobody was excited about paying top dollar for a movie about WikiLeaks. A film about the origins of Pets.com would have done better.

— Gitesh Pandya of BoxOfficeGuru.com comments on the dreadful opening weekend box office numbers for “The Fifth Estate.”