You never know who is listening…

Olympic FlagHere at AHA, we’re big Olympic watchers (well, Paul is and he updates us… a lot). A few days ago, he missed the live coverage of the Opening Ceremony so he watched it later in the day on CBC’s Olympic website. The CBC coverage of the ceremony was hosted by Ron MacLean and Peter Mansbridge. At one point, Paul came into my office and said that something was weird – it seemed like the hosts’ microphones were live during what would have been the commercial breaks on television.

A little bit later he came in and said, “I don’t think they know the mics are hot during the breaks.” That really caught my interest. As communicators, we have all heard the horror stories of people who said things they shouldn’t have when not realizing that the microphones were still on.

I immediately went to see what was happening. With the exception of a couple of mild comments about Russian President Putin not receiving much applause, there wasn’t much to report. But it did get us talking, in the AHA office, about hot mics – along with conversations that happen in public that are overheard – and similar challenges that we face in the world of public relations and corporate communications.

Sure enough, as Paul watched further, at one point Mr. MacLean appeared surprised when he was advised through his earpiece that the mics were live during the breaks. Mr. Mansbridge also sounded a little taken aback by this news and responded – sounding mildly concerned – that he wasn’t sure what he had said during the breaks.

The fact is, they didn’t say anything shocking or negative during the commercial breaks, but they could have and many would have. If not knowing that the mic is on – and carrying all your conversation – can happen to professional broadcasters who have decades of experience, it can happen to you. (We tried to link to this video, but the Opening Ceremony’s full video appears to have been removed from the CBC Olympic site.) Maybe a producer or someone else made a mistake and left the microphones on; maybe they just forgot to tell the hosts. Whatever the reason, it was clear that the hosts didn’t know and that could have been an issue. PR professionals have lots of horror stories about clients not realizing their mic was on and picking up their comments.

On the other side of people hearing things they shouldn’t, there have been times when I have overheard incredibly private or confidential conversations in restaurants, pubs and even on airplanes. These were conversations that should have been kept behind closed doors. I have to admit that I eavesdrop a little when in public, but it isn’t hard to overhear a lot of things that should be kept private, even if you aren’t trying. It’s important to remember to have no expectation of privacy if you are in a public place. And whispering just makes me pay more attention. And I have great hearing, just saying.

We always speak to our clients about this – especially during an issue or crisis. You never know who is beside or behind you when you are in public. In this day and age of smartphones with video cameras, you don’t know if you are being recorded. It pays to be a little paranoid. If something is confidential, it should be fully treated as such. If you tell even one person outside of the core circle of individuals that should/need to know, you are risking a breech of confidentiality and it could cause you grief. We all know the story about author J.K. Rowling’s pseudonym (when she wrote The Cuckoo’s Calling) being disclosed by a friend of her lawyer’s wife.

When we remind clients about microphones at events, we also bring up the fact that if they are being interviewed on camera or on the radio, they should assume that they are being taped, even if they think the interview is over. Sometimes it happens that the microphone is left on and everything you say, even if the journalist has left the room, is being recorded.

It’s important to think about what you are sharing in public and, if you are “mic’d up,” to act like that microphone is on until you get into your car and leave the event or interview. Sometimes, the walls really do have ears.

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