The fallout from Facebook’s data privacy scandal has rocked the social media network. The company is facing an FTC investigation, its stock price has dropped, and its CEO and founder Mark Zuckerberg has been roundly criticized for his slowness in responding to reports that the private data of more than 50 million Facebook users was harvested without their knowledge by political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
In the wake of the Facebook/Cambridge Analytica crisis, brands should take a hard look at their own data collection practices and how they communicate about them, say crisis and data comms experts.
The #DeleteFacebook hashtag began trending after The New York Times and The Guardian reported that Cambridge Analytica did psychological profiling and ad targeting for Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign with harvested Facebook data.
High-profile personalities who have publicly announced they have deleted their Facebook accounts include Tesla chief executive Elon Musk and actor Will Ferrell.
Monty says brands now "have a chance to use the considerable attention on data collection and get ahead of it" by increasing transparency around their practices.
On the flip side, some commentators have pointed out that Facebook users signed up for this and consumers have no one to blame but themselves if they don’t like it.
"It has been said countless times – if the product is free, then you are the product," opined tech writer Daniel Starkey on Geek.com. "We’ve known this. We’ve all known this."
But that positioning isn’t going to go over well with consumers, nor do PR pros say it is particularly a fair argument for any brand to make.
Several of them point out to PRWeek that the digital ecosystem is complex, and it is difficult for people to grasp how their data can be crossed against other data sets, especially on social networks, for political and marketing communication campaigns.
While Chris Albert, SVP of digital research and analytics at Ketchum, found the approach Cambridge Analytica used to better understand its target audience "smart," he says it crossed an ethical line.
"Transparency around data collection needs to continue to improve," says Albert. "Twenty-page terms and conditions statements with data usage hidden for a single app download don’t cut it anymore. We need to be open with consumers on how that data can potentially be used."
People’s attitudes towards data usage will also change. Albert notes this is a positive development.
"Bringing a healthy skepticism to data partnerships and the appropriate use of data only forces the industry to be even more buttoned up in what we do," he says.
As data collection methods evolve with the birth of new innovations, the bigger challenge for marketing and comms pros will be "connecting the dots between new innovations and the standard methods that we leverage today," Albert concludes.
Data sharing transparency
Noah Finn, managing partner at Finn Partners, concurs that if brands take away anything from what has transpired with Facebook, it’s that they need to be careful about who they share and give access to their customer data.
Given all the negative press that Facebook has been facing and dipping consumer trust in the platform, brands should think twice about sharing their data with the social media giant for now. It has a popular audience-targeting feature that crosses brand data across Facebook profiles. Other social platforms have similar capabilities.
"If brands are sharing their info with Facebook, and people don’t trust Facebook, there is certainly risk in that," says Finn. "So one of the biggest things for brands to do is to be very clear and open about what they do with the data they collect from their customer and who they are sharing it with."
Brands need to do "more due diligence" to ensure they are working with trustworthy partners and they should make clear they welcome feedback from customers on their data policies, Finn advises.
Given high-profile data breaches over the years, Alex Conant, partner at public affairs consulting firm Firehouse Strategies, says corporate brands should take seriously their use of and communications around data.
And if they don’t, the risks to their businesses are significant.
"There’s a general recognition that if consumers don’t trust you to protect their privacy, then they’re not going to trust you with anything," notes Conant.