What does the 'Chatham House rule' actually mean?

We look at the origin of this widely used term and find out how it can benefit IoD members.

The Institute of Directors (IoD) in the East of England is coordinating a series of events entitled Mastermind Groups for members of the IoD to come together and discuss business ideas and concerns in a ‘free space’, under the famous Chatham House Rule, which ensures that everyone’s comments remain unattributed.

The rule originated in 1927 and was refined in 1992 and 2002 at Chatham House, the headquarters of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London. The Chatham House rule states that:

“When a meeting or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.”

This means that in events held in Chatham House or in any other meeting elsewhere that is subject to the Chatham House rule, comments and information can be discussed but can never be attributed to the people who shared them after the event.

It is a common misconception that the rule directly translates as “what goes on in the room stays in the room” because although the speakers remain anonymous, the information shared in the meeting can still be quoted outside. For example, a person tweeting about the event afterwards can share information about the event, as long as they never identify the person who made the comments or any other participant. The attendance list must also remain anonymous, except to those who are attending and if any attendees were to break the rule, they would face appropriate sanction, which is usually in the form of future exclusion from all institute activities.

By providing anonymity to speakers, the Chatham House Rule encourages openness, as it allows people to voice their own honest opinions, and express views that may not be those of their own organisations. The rule aims to strengthen business relationships by providing a ‘safe’ space in which people don’t have to worry about their reputation or the risk of being publicly quoted in the future.

It is particularly useful in discussions where the subject matter is politically sensitive or when projects are still in the development stage and are yet to be revealed to the public, which is why the rule is invoked by many local government, research and commercial organisations in their meetings.

The IoD respects this ‘morally binding’ rule and has implemented it in their Mastermind Group meetings, with the aim of bringing together non-competing industries in a supportive space in which all opinions are valued, and where directors can give and receive constructive business advice on the challenges that they face on a daily basis.

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