Melissa Kinch
Melissa Kinch

If there’s one theme that rises to the surface for 2019, it’s the issue of personal data. You can bet it’s going to be a hot topic at CES in Las Vegas next week. Our personal data is being collected, stored, analyzed, sold, and mined like never before. And let’s not forget stolen and compromised all too frequently.

Data has become the currency for many digital services that we get “for free.” People don’t pay in dollars – they pay in sharing their data on countless apps, social media and services. And this data currency trend touches every inch of our lives – connected homes, connected cars, health and wellness management, mapping and traffic tools, online shopping. 

While it’s the cost of doing business, most consumers admit to being uncomfortable with their personal data being collected and used beyond the product or service they have subscribed to. Ketchum surveyed more than 1,000 consumers in 2018 for our inaugural Social Permission and Technology Study, and their opinions should give pause to corporate communications and C-suite executives. Consumers don’t trust companies with their data – but they also don’t really know what to do about it

These conflicts are leading to a tipping point of trust – and reputation fallout – that most technology brands are unprepared to manage.

How should brands react when the topic turns to data privacy and security – as it invariably does after years of headline-grabbing breaches and glitches? My point of view is that you must engage your consumers in an open dialogue about how you are using and protecting their data. 

Almost always, that prompts a deeper discussion. How do I go about doing that? What do we say about data and privacy? How do we strike a balance between openness and overload?

For many brands, this may be the first real exposure point to the need for deep corporate reputation and crisis or issues work; indeed, companies may suddenly see brand fans turn into angry “Techruptors,” a tech-savvy early adopter audience who our research suggests will be at the forefront of demanding change in the way companies operate and interact with them.

How to get data-engaged

OK, enough with the problem. Let’s start solving it. Here are seven suggestions to help you create a true dialogue with consumers around data: 

  • Publicly solicit questions and feedback. Companies are exposing themselves to reputational risk if they don’t have an open dialogue on data. Be transparent in how you are handling data privacy and security. Publicly and authentically encourage feedback. And really listen.
  • Secure C-suite buy-in. Even the most brilliant, comprehensive communications plan is destined to fail without the involvement, and support, of the company’s top executives. Encourage them to address the topic in speeches and public forums, and to answer questions directly. You’ll garner consumer confidence if they’re confident your executives mean business regarding data.
  • Remember, anything internal can (and probably will) become external. Your data dialogue can’t be just a collection of statements and hard-to-decipher policies. To be effective, and credible, it must be inculcated into the corporate culture. Nothing hurts reputation worse than when an internal email or memo goes viral – especially if it details how a company is hiding data policies from consumers while telling the public something else.
  • Don’t speak in absolutes. Nothing is 100 percent safe. Be honest about continuous improvement.
  • Answer the questions people really have. Facts are great – but facts don’t mean your brand is being transparent. Take the time to understand and answer consumers’ data questions.
  • Make human touch possible. If consumers can’t reach a human being to talk to about their data, you have already failed. Blocking consumers from talking to a person about something so critical can destroy trust.
  • Don’t throw stones. If your data story isn’t 100 percent palatable to the public, be careful before you attack competitors or become too self-righteous in your statements.

Data security and privacy, along with numerous other reputational issues, will increasingly impact companies of all sizes in 2019. Be proactive in addressing them and you’ll increase your chances of keeping Techruptors as allies and fans, not enemies.

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Melissa Kinch is partner and managing director of technology for Ketchum, specializing in corporate communications, issues management, business-to-business branding, corporate branding and strategic philanthropy/CSR.