Standing up for sense

A series of embarrassing data protection slip-ups have kept the ICO's comms director very busy, reports Adam Hill

Susan Fox
Susan Fox

The does not show it but there must be days when Susan Fox, director of comms and external relations at the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO), wonders why she bothers.

In August, a contractor working for the Home Office lost a USB stick containing data on all 84,000 prisoners in England and Wales. That came barely ten months after HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) managed to lose two CDs carrying the entire child benefit database of 25 million families. Fox, charged with communicating the ICO’s work – the independent authority publicises ways of protecting private data while promoting access to publicly-held information – must have held her head in despair.

‘In data surveillance there are three real red rags for the public: money, children and health,’ says Fox. The HMRC loss involved the first two, and this debacle is not an isolated case. In all, between November 2007 and June this year the ICO found more than 160 incidents in which confidential data was ‘misplaced’ by government, councils and businesses.

The authority answers directly to Parliament and two pieces of legislation form the cornerstone of Fox’s comms work. One is the Data Protection Act, now two decades old, which was the catalyst for setting up the ICO in the first place. The other is the Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, passed just eight years ago. ‘It is a retrospective law so organisations have got to think about what skeletons are in their
filing cabinet,’ says Fox. ‘There is plenty to think about in there for PROs. We are doing a lot of work talking to public organisations as they are obliged to release information if asked.’

Fox’s organisation is not responsible for any high profile lapses, but they make her life considerably harder, chipping away at public confidence. Amid the chaos it would be a surprise if Fox did not sometimes yearn for the calm of her beloved countryside. When not doing her day job, she enjoys visiting the ancient stone circles of the nearby Peak District with her husband and daughter.

In fact, this relaxed 47-year-old PR veteran is marked out by her clear-headedness, say former colleagues. ‘Sue is one of life’s planners,’ observes Environment Agency corporate affairs manager Jean Varley. She also inspires loyalty. Victoria James, now comms business partner at AstraZeneca UK, says she still receives mentoring from her old boss. ‘She involves people and takes the time and trouble to ask for their views,’ she says.

From the ICO’s Wilmslow HQ Fox heads a department of 11, with Trimedia handling media relations work. The promotion of common sense is one of the ICO’s biggest comms challenges: the Data Protection Act does not impose a blanket ban on the release of personal information yet organisations sometimes hide behind it when dealing with individuals.

‘It is just poor customer service,’ says Fox. Among many barking mad highlights was the Marks & Spencer employee who told one mother they could not talk to her about the delivery of her seven-year-old son’s Superman suit because it would infringe his data protection rights. At the beginning of the month, the ICO organised Stupid Aid Week, designed to eradicate such blatant, damaging misunderstandings.

It is a busy time for Fox: the ICO is campaigning on the importance of students’ personal information and has also just launched a regional campaign to outline people’s rights under the FOI Act.

Yet although it can fine private companies and individuals breaching the law, the ICO is unable to prosecute erring government departments or agencies such as HMRC. The fact remains that for all its good intentions the ICO can appear a little toothless. ‘People like to say that,’ says Fox with a frown.

She then points to some successes: 11 companies and individuals were successfully prosecuted under the Data Protection Act in the past year.

The information explosion means, perhaps above all, there are huge issues over personal data falling into criminal hands. And as the online world changes, the ICO’s work will never become less complicated. ‘Our message is not: “don’t have a database”,’ continues Fox. ‘What we are saying is: build privacy into your design. If you have a laptop, make sure it is encrypted.’

And despite all those laptops left on trains and memory sticks astray in the post, Fox certainly does not appear daunted. ‘We know things will go wrong,’ she concludes with a smile. ‘The trick is to have a plan.’

Susan Fox’s turning points

What was your biggest career break?

Being made PR manager at Unilever. I’d worked there for a year when my line manager left. It was a senior position in a good organisation.

I learned my PR trade and the management skills I still use today.

What advice would you give to someone climbing the career ladder?

Plagiarise with pride. There is a lot of good advice out there – so act on it. There is plenty of good practice and courses; people think that they do not need these things, but they should. And if you see something good, do it again. You do not need to reinvent the wheel all the time.

Who has been your greatest mentor?

Malcolm Moore, head of PR services for Unilever in Merseyside, who died recently. He was a kind gentleman and a real pro. Integrity was his byword. He took me under his wing and I’m grateful to him for bothering.

What do you prize most in new recruits?

Someone who wants to do something well and then asks how they can do it better.

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