The slogan was posted on flyers throughout taverns in the city of Derry in Northern Ireland during the Second World War.
“Loose lips sink ships.”
The historic old walled city on the western bank of the River Foyle was critically important during the Second World War. It was the terminus for many of the transatlantic convoys that carried food and material to Britain during the Battle of the Atlantic. Across Derry’s fast-moving River Foyle lay the County of Donegal, in the neutral Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland, in which Derry is situated, is part of the United Kingdom.
Ireland’s neutrality posed a threat, because it was full of German spies hoping to gain intelligence on Allied convoys preparing to leave port. Germany’s sea wolves, the deadly U-boat fleet, used this intelligence to seek out departing convoys.
I remember my father, a petty officer aboard the frigate HMCS Prince Rupert during the war, telling me how he would hide his uniform cap under his duffel coat and cross the Foyle to drink with his shipmates in Donegal.
German spies could be sitting at the next table, so slogans like “Zip it!” showing a sailor with a zipped mouth and other cautions were everywhere.
I thought of this recently when two of Donald Trump’s attorneys, Ty Cobb and John Dowd, foolishly chose the BLT Steak restaurant in Washington, D.C. to have a discussion that should have been held in private. Mere steps from the New York Times’ Washington bureau, BLT Steak was full of reporters, including one sitting immediately adjacent to Cobb and Dowd’s table, who was able to take note of their entire conversation and report it in the next day’s newspaper.
Loose lips sink ships.
Not long after my partners and I started our own holiday company in Toronto back in the 80s, one of our vice presidents boarded an aircraft in Montego Bay, Jamaica. He had been on the island for a week, contracting hotels for our winter charter program from Toronto.
As luck would have it, he found himself seated behind the president and vice president of our biggest competitor. They had been in Jamaica doing exactly the same thing.
With the same careless disdain exercised by Trump’s lawyers, blissfully unaware of their surroundings and of the proximity of a competitor immediately behind them, they proceeded to spend the next few hours reviewing their prices for each hotel in their Jamaica program, as our product executive sat behind them filling a notebook with valued intelligence.
When our winter brochures appeared months later, we were able to “blow them out of the water,” just as those German spies had sought to do in the taverns of Donegal and on the sea lanes to Canada some 40 years earlier.
In business, as in war, loose lips sink ships. You need to learn to be discrete, and to be aware of your surroundings. Business conversations concerning confidential matters should be strictly off limits for restaurants and bars. You never know who is listening. Private rooms are there for a reason.
Back in the 1970s, my father’s company was involved in a major negation with an out-of-town business competitor. Two representatives of the opposing firm were staying at a downtown hotel while negotiations between the companies took place over a couple of days.
When my father placed a call to one of the out-of-town negotiators one afternoon, he found that the hotel switchboard had patched him into a room-to-room telephone conversation between the two out-of-town negotiators. As my father and his accountant on a separate line sat listening in stunned surprise for the next 90 minutes, the two negotiators proceeded to review their entire negotiating strategy in excruciating detail. They never knew that a competitor was listening, taking it all down.
One chance in a million? Absolutely. Yet those two men were likely no more than 200 feet apart. Their meeting could easily have been held, in private, in one of their rooms.
Just like you if you make the same mistake, they never knew what hit them.