Thanks to the web, the media have more access to information than ever, forcing companies to walk the fine line between privacy and transparency.
When technology website CNET ran an article about online privacy earlier this month - using Google CEO Eric Schmidt as an example - it wasn't the story that created a furor. It was Google's response.
To prove that detailed information about people is readily available on the internet and can be found using search sites such as Google, staff writer Elinor Mills included links to information on Schmidt's home address and his financial worth, as well as the fact that he had been to Burning Man, a hedonistic art festival held annually in the Black Rock Desert.
In response, Google's PR team "blackballed" CNET, refusing to cooperate with its reporters for at least one year.
Much of the media and blog coverage has characterized Google's response as petulant and hypocritical. "Google is all for Googling, as long as you don't Google a Google executive," wrote Wired.
But the issue that could be lost as everyone focuses on Google's reaction is the very point that Mills touches on: "That such detailed personal information is so readily available on public websites makes most people uncomfortable," she writes. And that includes companies, as they continue to struggle to find a balance between privacy and transparency.
That could alter the way that companies interact with the media, which, thanks to Google, Yahoo, Microsoft's MSN, and Amazon.com's A-9, have a cornucopia of online search tools at their fingertips.
"This example points up the vital need for transparency in today's information and knowledge society," says Gerard Corbett, VP of branding and corporate communications for Hitachi America. "If a search engine is able to find information that is ostensibly private, all organizations need to be prepared well and perform ongoing information due diligence to assure that what is out there in the ether is known and accounted for."
Transparency versus privacy
This example also shows that the media need to wield greater discretion. Just because information is available doesn't mean it should be reported, warns Blanc & Otus CEO Greg Spector. If someone wanted to find Schmidt's financial worth and address, it's out there to be found. That doesn't mean the media have to offer a road map.
"There's been an unwritten agreement in the media that you don't expose [personal or private] things that don't help the story," says Spector. "It's one thing if you're exposing wrongdoing, versus revealing someone's home address, which raises security issues. The media needs to perhaps explore some of its old values and ethics."
Spector suspects that there will be more instances where the lines between corporate transparency and personal privacy blur, as such lines are always tested and pushed.
And due to the pervasiveness of blogs, it's easier to spread information that companies may not want you to see, or information that's just false. Apple Computer had to deal with the former when bloggers leaked information about new products earlier this year, as did the San Francisco 49ers, when clips from a racy media training video made by the former PR director also made the rounds online.
Verizon is one company that has had to fight the spread of erroneous information. For more than a year, municipal wi-fi enthusiasts have been repeating a story saying that Verizon is trying to block local governments from providing wireless internet access. The company has argued that local governments are not as well-equipped to offer such services, but Verizon is not lobbying to stop such cities as Philadelphia from doing so, says Eric Rabe, VP of media relations.
"But getting our accurate position out there on this issue is something we've had to work hard to achieve," Rabe adds. "A sizeable amount of inaccurate, or even blatantly biased, information makes its way to the web, and the more sensational stories - true or not - tend to get amplified by repetition."
And because news moves more quickly today, across not just the internet, but also to a network of mobile devices, it can have a much more immediate impact on a company's reputation or market cap, warns Dave Samson, GM of public affairs at Chevron.
"Because news moves so quickly, it's harder to reel it back in, so you better get it corrected before it has a negative impact," adds Samson. "Managing the flow of news has become much more complex."
Samson recalls that when he worked at Oracle, the head of European business operations commented on how the outbreak of the war in Iraq would impact business in the region. That translated into rumors Oracle was leaving the region, and Oracle had to spend the next 24 hours reassuring thousands of customers it wasn't.
"The implications are pretty extraordinary, as information gets moved without people checking it," says Samson.
And not only do companies need to react faster to the mercurial nature of news these days, they also need to recognize that information, if it's public, will get out there. Companies need to be vigilant about what information is available online, whether it's campaign contribution records or information that is accidentally posted on a corporate website, says Jud Branam, MD of Hass MS&L. "There's no question we're going to see more of this," he says. "The genie is out of the bottle. I don't see why it would go back in."
A change in the rules
Google should have anticipated a story like the one CNET did, says Samson. Companies have an obligation to protect their staff's private information, he explains. But if the media can access the information, right or wrong, then it's fair game.
CNET isn't the only media company to go digging about Google. The Wall Street Journal wrote an article about how Google's soaring stock price was increasing property values in communities around the company's Mountain View, CA-based headquarters, as staffers cashed in their stock and bought houses. The paper searched county assessor's records to find that a Google SVP paid $17.8 million for a 16,000-square-foot house, while a business development manager paid $5.7 million for his home.
Whether companies think this is fair isn't the point. The rules of the game have changed, and only those companies that embrace this new level of transparency will win, says Chris Deri, an SVP with Edelman's corporate and public affairs practice. Because if those companies that don't want to play by the new rules are viewed as obstructionists, no one will consider them a credible source.
"Companies that throw up more firewalls and are seen as standing in the way ... will lose credibility," says Deri. He points to the World Trade Organization, which posts on its website links to nearly every good, bad, and "insane conspiracy" theory about the organization. He also praised Microsoft for posting a balanced array of news coverage on its website during the antitrust litigation because it "wanted to be a credible source of information," says Deri.
But the downside of the era of the citizen journalist is that there is no citizen editor, adds Deri. And while it is incumbent upon PR people to acknowledge that this is the way the media universe now works, and that anything is fair game, it's also incumbent upon the media to use better judgment, in terms of both using the information they find and understanding the implications publishing private or personal information could have, says Samson.
"The thing that strikes me most is something we've known for a long time - there are no secrets," says OutCast Communications president Margit Wennmachers. "It's just that now everything is available in internet time. As PR people, we have to be super-aware and very fast. The notion that we can control the timing and content of all information was always a stretch, and I guess now it's downright silly."