If you or your staff attend trade shows and conferences this year, apply some extra vigilance over what's revealed to clients and prospects. Reason: Your competitors are watching, and your company's closely held secrets and business plans are the most vulnerable at these events.
Examples: A loose-lipped marketer presents a product at a trade show and blabs that an improved version is coming in just three months. Your sales of the existing product plummet. Or, say your salespeople tell prospective clients that you shipped 1,000 units this month when it can be discovered that you shipped 1,500 last month. You just confirmed to competitors that your sales are down.
Companies lost an estimated $59 billion in 2001 due to trade-secret theft, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study. And lawsuits involving stolen trade secrets are rising.
Remind staff what can be revealed
More than half (54 percent) of trade-show exhibitors admit they don't set parameters of what can be revealed, according to a Center for Exhibition Industry Research survey. Not smart!
Preventative measures are your best protection. Apply these three tips to safeguard your secrets at upcoming events:
1. Conduct a trade-secret audit. Identify exactly what information is and is not a trade secret for your business. Then train employees on what they can and can't say.
For example, if you have new product X in the works, can the marketer say the company is coming out with X or not? Can he or she provide limited descriptions of the functionality of the product?
2. Stay on your toes. Remember, not all conversation takes place in the booth or conference room. Competitors may hear something they aren't supposed to in an elevator, at a cocktail party or even the restroom. Remind employees that they're "on" 24/7 and not to let their guard down.
3. Issue reminders about confidentiality pacts. If your employees have signed confidentiality agreements with your company, remind them of their responsibilities beforehand.
Loose lops sink your legal defense
Finally, keep this in mind: As a matter of law, if your company's rep voluntarily discloses protected information to a third party, that move instantly destroys your company's right to maintain and protect the trade secret.
If you want to accuse an employee or competitor of stealing secrets, you'll need to prove at least these things:
• That the information had been truly secret, unknown outside the company gates.
• That adequate steps had been taken to protect the information.
• That the recipient of the information "knew or should have known" that it was obtaining a trade secret.