Brands simplify their message on privacy

Tech-sector heavyweights are beginning to express their privacy policies in customer-friendly language and formats.

Tech-sector heavyweights are beginning to express their privacy policies in customer-friendly language and formats, a move PR pros say will be crucial for all companies in an era when Internet privacy is top of mind for consumers, politicians, and the media.

Facebook, for instance, has partnered with the National Association of Attorneys General on a consumer-education campaign about its privacy settings and controls. To help teens manage their user profiles and visibility across the Web, the campaign includes a video series called “Ask the Safety Team,” a tip sheet with the top 10 tools to control information on Facebook, and state-specific PSAs. The spots feature participating attorneys general and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg. The campaign elements will continue to reside on a Facebook Safety page.

Companies with interactive websites that collect data and user information will continue to face pressure to be more transparent about their privacy policies. In her first public appearance as the chairwoman of the Federal Trade Commission last month, Edith Ramirez stated that shaping and enforcing protection of consumer information is at the top of her agenda.

“We haven't been shy about taking on the tech giants [such as Google and Facebook],” she said. 

Earlier this week, the Obama Administration threatened to veto a cybersecurity bill on the grounds that it failed to safeguard the privacy rights of individual Internet users.

While political attention has focused on Web 2.0 companies, any entity that has transactional relationships through digital communications should take note, stresses Sarah Tyre, MD of the issues and crisis group at Burson-Marsteller.

“Companies in other sectors need to look at the privacy concerns that have arisen with social media companies – because they are the bellwethers on this issue – and learn from them,” she explains. “Every company in some way, shape, or form has data, whether about employees, customers, or vendors.”

For starters, companies shouldn't only post their privacy policy online and call that a communications strategy on the issue, adds Tyre, since such a document is typically complex, lengthy, and full of legalese.

“The companies that will do the best will also provide more information about their privacy policy and setting options elsewhere that is more easily understood,” she continues.

In addition to a privacy policy and summary page, eBay provides additional detailed information in plain English about its practices on its eBay Privacy Center site. Aside from outlining how it protects customer data, the site also has video of eBay CEO John Donahoe speaking with The Wall Street Journal about its privacy approach.

“Given the complicated and technical aspects of online privacy, we think it's important to be transparent with consumers,” says Kari Ramirez, specialist for global communications at eBay. “That is why we designed our Privacy Center to explain how eBay uses and protects our consumer information in a way that is shorter, simpler, and easier to understand.”

Microsoft approaches customer privacy through the broader issue of online safety, a core pillar to growing the company's reputation, says Jacqueline Beauchere, who was appointed its first chief online safety officer in March. Over the past several years, she has been responsible for communications to individuals, government, and academics about Microsoft's work in online safety.

She says the company communicates customer privacy in different ways and its approach often depends on the demographic it hopes to reach. In a global survey conducted last year, Microsoft found adults were worried about privacy mostly in terms of having their identity stolen. And while many people assume that young consumers are less concerned about privacy because they share more online, Beauchere says Microsoft research has discovered “they are actually quite concerned about it. They just call it something else: online reputation. They are eager to present and preserve good reputation and correct any of what I call ‘digital drama.'”

To address the importance of privacy and smart online behavior, Microsoft has created infographics specifically for teens and their parents. Called “The Naked Truth,” it includes stats about “sexting,” cyberbullying, and other behaviors that could impact their college admission or job searches. For example: “38% of college admissions officers found something online that had a negative impact on their evaluation of a student.”

Microsoft spread the poster through its Web properties, as well as on Facebook and Twitter. “When you have something to communicate about privacy, we need to go where our consumers are, including Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube,” says Beauchere. “We really try to blanket the landscape.”

Peter Hirsch, director of reputation risk at Ogilvy Public Relations, says assuming young people are not concerned about privacy is a pitfall that brands should avoid. He teaches a class at Baruch College and conducts an informal poll about their privacy practices and concerns.

“Every year, their responses run the gamut from ‘I guard my privacy completely' all the way to ‘I really don't care about it too much, I just practice common sense,'” he explains. “I would caution companies from being cavalier with data from young people [and to closely consider] how they speak to them about their data because I've found the spectrum of concerns and behaviors to be very broad.”

In communicating what they do with customer data, brands should also specify how they manage and protect information collected via mobile, says Jen Long, director of the technology and innovation practice at Ruder Finn. Citing a TRUSTe survey on consumer privacy, she says “98% of consumers feel they need better control over how their personal information via mobile devices and apps is used.”

“Brands that have particularly consumer-friendly privacy policies have an opportunity to differentiate themselves from their competitors,” she asserts. “Find a way to highlight your respect for your consumers' privacy and you will likely win new customers.”

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