Do brands think data breaches have lost their 'PR disaster' factor?

"When Will Your Data Breach Happen? Not a question of if but when." This is a March 2015 headline from a well-read security news site.

Are we getting a bit blasé about data breaches, asks Jon White?
Are we getting a bit blasé about data breaches, asks Jon White?
Yes it’s a bit scaremongering, but the realisation that it might be true is probably the scariest thing about it. 

True or not, every week it appears that more and more global companies are falling victim to high profile data breaches and ending up embarrassed.

It is this last word "embarrassed" that I dwell on here though, as I think, were they really embarrassed? 

Their media statements do not suggest embarrassment. An apology and an attempt at reassurance, yes, but not embarrassment. 

This leads me to an interesting question – if the data breach really is inevitable for everyone, has it lost its ‘PR disaster’ factor? 

I think some global brands may well be starting to believe this.

Before you think I’m trivialising the impact of cyber-attacks, I realise that there have been dire consequences for many business and consumers due to data theft.

Target recently reported that the huge data breach it experienced in 2013-14 cost $162m, and Uber is now being sued over a driver data breach, not to mention the emotional cost of identity theft to the average consumer. 

I’m simply questioning the impact of the long-term reputation of established global brands (and their perception of this impact).

Brands like British Airways, eBay, Target, Sony, Orange and Tesco have all been the subject of high profile data breaches in recent times and this list is by no means comprehensive. 

Seeing these stories breaking pretty much every week has certainly diminished the shock factor for those of us who work in tech and I’m beginning to think that, given the frequency of data breaches reported and the number and size of companies affected, brands are relying on this and perceiving it as less of a reputational issue as a result.

Maybe brands think that it will not cause them to lose users – let’s face it, an eBay power seller with thousands of positive reviews is unlikely to quit and find an alternative site. 

However, while some users will not be spooked, many more are becoming increasingly concerned about security, and the frequency of data breaches is only serving to make them more nervous about using services that may be insecure. 

Those who are tempted to believe that a data breach is no longer such a PR disaster should realise that this will likely only apply to an extremely loyal group of users, and the reputational damage caused will impact the ability to gain security-conscious new users. 

Looking away from the negative for a minute, aside from the operational and consumer benefits, brands should think about the PR opportunity to differentiate themselves through strong security. 

In a world where it seems everyone’s getting hacked, you can stand out by giving consumers what they once took for granted – security companies are understandably extremely vocal here, so will there be a brand that grasps the mantle too?

Jon White is director of technology at Ruder Finn UK

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