How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Talk About Privacy

broadsheetcommunications logoDuring my two decades of PR and communications, much of which has been spent working with publishers and ad tech companies, I’ve never encountered a topic that sends clients running quite the way that privacy can today. It’s become our industry’s plutonium: handle it only if you must. But do so gently, and get away as quickly as you can.

I spend a lot of time talking to companies about privacy. The unfortunate reality is that our industry has come to view this topic from a narrow PR perspective – as one to be managed—if not controlled, spun or downright suppressed—through defensive communications.

Defense is an understandable reaction given the current regulatory climate and growing popular concerns around privacy, but I believe it’s a losing strategy in the end. AdTech companies will better navigate the topic by going on a “strategic offensive,” engaging in the privacy narrative frankly and publicly.

Yes, Privacy Matters

This year, The New York Times unveiled The Privacy Project, a Service Journalism initiative designed to examine the technology advances that are pushing the boundaries of consumer privacy. Why would the Times undertake such a project? Because privacy, and the technology that’s testing it, are indisputably important both in their current and future implications.

It would appear that the AdTech industry’s response to the rise in public scrutiny has been to pretend that nothing has changed at all. “Consumers are still willingly giving up their personal data? Well, they must not care about privacy after all, right? Proceed as planned.”

The fact is that consumers do care. When AdTech executives step back from their professional roles, they know this to be true. Research tells us that concerns over personal data privacy are increasing among nearly three-fourths of consumers, and those consumers are hungry for new regulations designed to protect their information.

Regulations they shall have: GDPR, CCPA are just the beginning; privacy-focused regulatory agenda will grow quickly over the coming years. If companies won’t protect consumer privacy out of a sense of responsibility, regulators will forge ahead—whether they understand the intricacies of data collection or not.

AdTech Is Not Big Tobacco—Stop Acting Like It

The AdTech industry will be regulated not in spite of the fact that vendors avoid public discussions of privacy, but because of it. We treat the topic like a dirty secret, one that must be masked by Slick Marketing, PR and teams of lawyers. But we’re not Big Tobacco. The existence of our industry isn’t contingent on dealing with harm to consumers. Targeted, efficient advertising at scale and respect for consumer privacy are not mutually exclusive. The relationship between the two is complicated, yes—but balance is possible.

Attainment of this balance can be accelerated, so long as the AdTech industry is willing to cease hiding from the topic of privacy and instead actively drag it out into the light. We are seeing progress in this regard in some corners of our industry. At Cannes this year, 16 of the world’s largest advertisers announced the formation of the Global Alliance for Responsible Media, a global collaboration of agencies, media companies, platforms, and industry associations focused on rapidly improving the safety of online environments.

It’s the latest among a slew of other initiatives from the IAB, the ANA, the WFA, and others which demonstrate our industry’s ability to self-regulate on this important issue. Self-regulation is the only alternative to binding government regulation written by legislative bodies, which is to say: regulation by non-experts.

It is in the industry’s best interest to embrace a principle of legible, transparent, and honest communication about privacy – both directly with consumers and with their partners in the ecosystem. It’s hard to do that if everyone is running away from the topic.

From a communications perspective, companies should be less concerned about mitigating the headline risk of a privacy scandal, and more proactive in their engagement on the topic. It means taking a few concrete actions:

Talk about privacy in plain terms. Don’t overcomplicate the conversation with needless jargon. Newfangled terms like “hashing PII” makes data privacy less comprehensible, fueling misapprehension and distrust. The same goes with meaningless marketing speak or PR spin.

Communicate value. When we ask consumers to give up their data, what do they get for it? Do they understand the value exchange in real terms? Terms that you would agree to yourself? You give us this, we give you that. Be thoughtful in your management of consumer data, and be transparent about that management.

Engage in the regulatory dialogue. Politicians are already talking about how to regulate AdTech. The conversation is not going to go away if we ignore it, so focus instead on how to become a constructive part of it. Even if a company isn’t sitting next to its senator on Capitol Hill, it can be actively publishing opinions about appropriate, productive privacy regulations that serve the industry and consumer interests alike.

Engage with the press. Reporters and editors want to get the facts right. Sharing your industry expertise can be valuable for both parties as long as you honor a reporter’s interest, and if they honor fair terms for confidentiality (all of the good ones do).

You can’t outrun privacy, so don’t try. Your privacy strategy needs to be more than a PR strategy. And where the two do touch, the mandate should not be to suppress the topic of privacy within your communications.

Embrace it. The best defense against a privacy scandal is not going to come from being defensive. As the real experts in this field, it’s up to AdTech companies to speak up about the proper uses of consumer data. Running away from the topic will simply give the floor to those who don’t know the facts.

Read more: Navigating GDPR: Preparing for What’s to Come

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