Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) warns members about leaking to reporters

Chris Roush reported on his Talking Biz News site earlier this month that a Society of American Business Editors and Writers (SABEW) confidential strategic assessment report acknowledges that SABEW “seems stuck looking in the rear-view mirror rather than implementing changes that will catapult SABEW forward.”

The leaked report, according to Roush, “proposed widespread changes to the organization, including a total revamping of its membership structure and its pricing, re-doing its five-year-old website and improving in its fundraising and evaluating its training efforts.”
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A week after Roush’s story was published, SABEW president and McClatchy economics reporter Kevin Hall sent a letter to SABEW board members reminding them that leaking information is a breach of the fiduciary duty to the organization. I’m told there is one board member “who is taking the heat,” suspected of leaking to Roush.

From Hall’s letter to the board:

Folks, this is to remind all board members of what their fiduciary duties are and offer some ideas for “best practices” for those serving on the boards of volunteer organizations such as ours.

If you haven’t heard by now, the confidential SABEW strategic assessment and response from the executive committee and executive director were passed along to Chris Roush at the University of North Carolina, which once was under consideration as a potential home for SABEW. He used the information for a posting on his Talking Biz News blog.

It’s tempting to say “this is what journalists do.” We do, after all, seek to publish things that others wish remain private.

However, those of us who have taken on the role of being a governor of SABEW have competing obligations — responsibilities to SABEW itself and your fellow board members.

Separate from the issue of whether the sharing of board documents is a breach of a governor’s fiduciary responsibilities, it’s without question a breach of trust.

chrisrHere’s what Roush (left) tells Romenesko readers: “My story was designed to foster discussion about SABEW’s future. I’m disappointed the organization has chosen to react in this way. A journalism organization’s business should be open and respect journalism practices that its members regularly use such as obtaining documents from anonymous sources.”

Hall writes in an email: “The letter indeed has my name on it and was sent to everyone who received the strategic assessment so that no one would feel singled out. I truly have no interest in learning who the person is who shared the information, just sent out a reminder of what are the fiduciary responsibilities are for SABEW board members. …kevin

“We respect [Roush] right to publish whatever he sees fit. But from where the SABEW board stands, being a member comes with fiduciary duties and a responsibility to colleagues. It is disappointing that information was shared, but we are certainly not the first board that’s suffered this, and it is a bit puzzling given that there is nothing under consideration that is seemingly so sensitive that it’d rise to a level of interest beyond our small world.”

Hall’s letter to SABEW board members is after the jump.

October 16, 2013

To: SABEW Board Members
From: Kevin G. Hall, SABEW President 2013-14
Re: Fiduciary Duties as a Board Member

Folks, this is to remind all board members of what their fiduciary duties are and offer some ideas for “best practices” for those serving on the boards of volunteer organizations such as ours.

If you haven’t heard by now, the confidential SABEW strategic assessment and response from the executive committee and executive director were passed along to Chris Roush at the University of North Carolina, which once was under consideration as a potential home for SABEW. He used the information for a posting on his Talking Biz News blog.

It’s tempting to say “this is what journalists do.” We do, after all, seek to publish things that others wish remain private.

However, those of us who have taken on the role of being a governor of SABEW have competing obligations — responsibilities to SABEW itself and your fellow board members.

Separate from the issue of whether the sharing of board documents is a breach of a governor’s fiduciary responsibilities, it’s without question a breach of trust.

Let’s draw on the comments of Diana Henriques, who we warned via email last week that her written comments were now in Mr. Roush’ hands and subject to publication.

“I, for one, have operated for years — through some of SABEW’s most difficult days — in the belief that we all, governors and staff, understood the unwritten rules of being a faithful fiduciary. And through those very difficult days, my trust was rewarded … We could speak our minds without fear or reservations. We could say what we thought our fellow board members needed to hear without worrying how it would play with those who may not share our mission and certainly don’t share our responsibilities.”

“How do people operate in a setting populated by leakers? Should we assess every boardroom comment for its blog potential and save any likely candidates for private sidebars? After these notes, should we write nothing down and leave voicemail only when unavoidable? That is what people do when they feel they are dealing with folks they don’t trust.”

“I am not angry that this happened. I am broken-hearted, though. We all should be. Broken trust can be glued back together in time. But it never looks or feels the same.”

Perhaps you saw the resulting article and were relieved at its balance, and have come to feel that all of this came out okay. While containing some factual errors, it surely could have been worse.

But, to return to Diana’s comments, “Chris’s blog post … will do far less damage than the leak that inspired it.”

If we continue the face the possibility that one or more board members will continue to share internal documents, we fear it will lead us into a form of self-censorship and eventually result a less collaborative, less inclusive rethink of our mission and our effort to better align our value proposition to donors, members and our employers.

Many on the SABEW board generously donate their time out of what are busy work and home schedules. They deserve better.

Our own bylaws and explanation of governor responsibilities are silent on information sharing and disclosure, perhaps because the authors didn’t anticipate such a situation. However, SABEW board members are expected to adhere to and to promote SABEW’s Code of Ethics. And while they deal more with how to conduct ourselves as journalists, sharing private information certainly does not exemplify the ethical standards we as an organization have sought to promote.

We’ve researched the Best Practices for board members, including those suggested by the American Bar Association and the Council of Nonprofits.

While none directly deal with unauthorized leaks, they all provide guidelines for disclosure and information sharing. If you have the time, these links are worth mulling over:

Responsibilities #2 and #4 apply to us: [Link]

Importance of standards of conduct: [Link]

See the Duty of Loyalty language here: [Link]

We are likely to propose some bylaw changes at the next SABEW annual conference, and amending our policy for board members to be clearer about conduct and how information is disseminated may be in our best interests going forward.

This all may sound like making a mountain out of a molehill, but it really comes down to something so fundamental for the success of any and every organization — trust. Here’s hoping we can restore it quickly and get on with the important undertaking we’ve launched.

Thanks for hearing us out,

Kevin G. Hall
SABEW President 2013-14


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