“It is awful. It is very tense. You meet people in secret. You see products that often are in a very raw state. You cannot quote anybody. The brand will come for you when you write about it and will threaten you with blacklisting. Your source will claim he or she never spoke to you. Your editors will turn their backs on you if the pressure gets too much. It is like being a spy, you know…”
Those were the words of a tech writer and blogger who was known for his ability to “leak” information about products months in advance of their official launch or revealing. The year was 2009. “Leaks” were just becoming a part of tech news and indeed were even frowned upon by some – “that’s like the gossip column of a tabloid – not news,” one tech editor told me derisively. Leakers, as they were called, were considered to be a tribe that was better known for its networking with shady parts of the tech community.
Oh, and brands hated them.
Right from Apple banning a website for carrying a leak of an iPhone to another brand that threatened reviewers with a a fine running into thousands of dollars, if any information about a product was leaked out, the relationship between brands and product leakers was about as amiable as that of a Templar with a Turk in the days of the Crusades. If anything, the period preceding a launch was often a battle between brands and this breed of leakers – one side would try to keep things hidden, the other would try to reveal them.
Leaking products was also a very tough task. One of my former colleagues (I cannot name them but he/she is quite well-known) was an expert in this regard in India and their routine involved not just talking to people in the brand, but to accessory makers, chatting up people on bulletin boards, talking to retailers about shipments and sometimes even visiting warehouses in the middle of the night, and persuading security guards to give them a glimpse of a label on a package! It was extremely cloak and dagger – the stuff of espionage. And the results were often blurry photographs, sketchy outlines and mail excerpts that often hid as much as they revealed.
Fast forward to the present day – ten years later – and things are rather different.
Leaks are part and parcel of mainstream tech news, and indeed, are one of its most popular parts – hey, that editor who sneered about them being gossip columns perhaps forgot that gossip sells. Indeed, “leakers” are now an elite group of people, the ones who know what is going to happen in tech well before any official announcements are made. And the leaks have gone from being foggy and sketchy to being high-definition and detailed.
The problem is that quite often these leaks seem to have not been unearthed or discovered as they were in the past, but actually even strategically handed out by brands themselves. Whereas a decade ago, a leak specialist would have to sniff out details and put two and two together to get a morsel of information, today they are lead to a four-course meal that pretty much tells them everything they need to know. And the brands even INSIST that this information be called a “leak!” Media houses are now actually getting emails from brand representatives offering to “leak” information about products.
Indeed, brands and the people who leak information about their products not only seem to have repaired their bridges but at times even act like real estate partners. And product leaks, far from being an irritant that killed the excitement and surprise, are now an integral part of marketing strategy. Rare indeed is the product that is not leaked in glorious detail months before its official release.
“We have taken control of the leak process,” a senior sales executive from one of India’s leading smartphone brands once told me. “We know there is an audience that wants leaks and we also know there are people who specialize in them. And most of them are young and very impressionable. They do not check details or ask as many questions as a big media house would – it is more a case of quickly getting attention and page views or likes or whatever. So we route information through them. They might ‘come across’ a screenshot or ‘find’ a prototype or photograph, but make no mistake, in most cases, we know exactly what they have got.”
Now, this is not to say that “genuine” leak spotters do not exist. They very much do, and there are some wonderful investigators there. But what has changed is the way in which brands used to view leaks. Once a nuisance, it is a powerful marketing tool. “It is not uncommon to see a brand leak information about a forthcoming product on the very day its rival is launching a product of its own,” a friend in public relations told me. “And well, leaks are a way of staying in the news. Else you only get noticed during launches and reviews. This way you can keep talking of a product well before it gets released! And it’s always good to be in the headlines, isn’t it?” Almost every brand today stands accused of facilitating if not outrightly manipulating leaks.
And that is slightly disturbing news for those of us in the tech media. For, a planted or manipulated leak is nothing but a press release without a letterhead. It is dangerous because it can lead to assumptions by consumers, without any really official information. In essence, it is a rumor that has been circulated not to give additional information but to manipulate opinion, and that is a slippery slope. “Leaks were supposed to be about what brands did not want you to know. Now it is the other way around,” a senior tech writer told us. “You can even see company officials bantering happily with ‘leakers’ on social networks. Would you actually do that with someone who is secretly taking information out of your company? Information that could compromise your product?”
Of course, there is another side to this. By actually controlling what gets leaked, companies are also able to control what does not get out. There was the case of a phone that was being leaked for months before its launch, but what did NOT get leaked about it until very late was the fact that it had a feature that would stop it from being launched in some markets. Another brand kept feeding the “leak” market with details of its cameras, and successfully hid any information about its processor. “Give them a bit of information, and they are so happy that they stop digging,” was how a brand executive at a company described some of the leaker community. “So if you want to hide something, give them information about something else – and make it appear as if it just slipped out. It is amazing how well it works!”
At the end of the day, the leaks business is basically a battle for information. In the past, the brands did not give it out freely, and it had to be almost stolen. Today, brands are giving information away, carefully and selectively. In the past, the leaker was someone to be distrusted. Now they are becoming almost like influencers – propagators of news about the brand, although not officially.
The users still get unconfirmed information, but unlike in the past, there is a greater chance of their being manipulated by brands. Of course, in the past, many leakers too were doing nothing more than making intelligent guesses and maybe being very creative with Photoshop, but these were generally easy enough to spot. It is much more difficult now, as brands themselves are planting stories.
What’s really disturbing is that a number of “leakers” are actually in danger of becoming (or have already become) pawns on the marketing chessboard of brands. There are brands that have lists of people to whom to leak different details – design goes to a certain group, camera samples to another and so on.
So how does one know if a leak is original or planted? “The rule of thumb is that the more accurate and detailed the leak and the more it is circulated, the more likely that the leak was actually a clever handout,” a senior tech writer told us.
How times change, eh? Brands have cottoned on to the tech leaks business. And we really think it is up to the leaker community to up its game. Or end up being an unofficial part of a brand’s marketing team.