MAD Perspectives Blog

 Is the debate about Privacy...or Control?

Peggy Dau - Thursday, May 27, 2010

In light of the active discussion about Facebook and privacy over the past few weeks, let’s talk about these topics as related to businesses using social platforms.  Unlike consumers, businesses don’t worry about the sharing of personal information like address, birth date or likes.  The primary concerns, for every business when they enter into the social arena, are brand reputation, confidential information, investor relations and security.   The benefits of being social, authentic and transparent can outweigh the fears, but it requires some advance thought.

The bottom line to this rampant conversation about privacy is control.  As individuals and as businesses we want to control the flow information.  We want to control how we access information.  On the one hand we want to control the message.  We want to control who has access to that information.  From a business perspective, we want to limit the information a competitor can discover, while providing enough meaningful content to educate and attract new customers while retaining existing customers.

As individuals on Facebook, we actively seek social interaction with out “friends”.  We actually even accepted the Facebook Terms & Conditions when we signed up.  These T&Cs told us that information shared on Facebook is public, not private, unless we set our privacy settings accordingly.  Can we be social and private simultaneously?  Again, it’s about control.  We want to be social within a framework that we define.  We define who we want to be friends with, whether we allow access by Facebook applications or if we want out Facebook content searchable by search engines.  We control what is truly public.  We become concerned when the framework for establishing that control is changed.

For businesses, the Facebook controversy reinforces concerns even if your business is not using Facebook.  It reignites concerns about what being social may mean for your business.  The issues for a corporation are far more complex but no less concerning.   Let’s address a few of these issues in the context of privacy or control:

1. Brand Reputation:   Social media provides companies with another channel for using pull marketing strategies to gain brand visibility.   The company does not want to be private about its brand, but it does want to retain control.  Social media by its very nature is social, which mean companies have to give up a little control.  However, in giving up some control they will learn more about what their customers really think.  It is important for companies to engage in active listening or monitoring of online conversations.  This will help companies regain some control. They will be able to refine their messaging based on the open, candid feedback of the social internet.   It will come down to common sense in determining how to address negative sentiment.

2. Confidential Information:  Companies are always seeking a competitive edge to win business.  There have been many reports on the underhanded methods that companies will use to win market share.  While companies generally trust their employees, they are concerned about the information employees may share, unintentionally, on social platforms.  This includes information about product roadmaps, R&D developments, financial performance, go-to-market strategies and customer engagements.  Companies must invest in educating employees as to the company policy on social network participation and how or when corporate content can be shared.  This topic is all about privacy and controlling what content should or should not be kept private.

3. Investor Relations:  Given the broad, open nature of social media, many CFOs are concerned about the impact on their investor community (public or private).  The SEC continues to evolve its policy around social networks, but statements thus far recognize blogs as an approved medium for facilitating information between customers and stakeholders.  Blogs are not any different than any other statements when it comes to the anti-fraud provisions of federal securities law.  In short, avoid any ability to create speculation about the company or 3rd party valuation.  This is an area where control, in the form of a defined social media policy and ongoing monitoring, is important for compliance purposes.

4. Corporate Network Security:  IT Departments already face ongoing challenges regarding spam and malware.   The can control access to social networks from the corporate network, but that may be contrary to agreed upon goals.  They fear that employee access and participation on social networks from their office computers will expose the corporate network to increased attacks.  Again, a policy to define how the company will engage in social media, will help the IT group to understand who, what, where and how employees will engage and to continuously assess their network security solutions.  The goal is to maintain the privacy of the network and prohibit unwanted attacks.

While companies will give up some control as it comes to the social conversation about their brand, they must and will establish policies to guide their employees toward appropriate social networking on behalf of the company.  Just as Facebook has explicit, if somewhat shifting, privacy policy, companies must be cognizant of these policies and disclaimers as they leverage Facebook and other social platforms.  It’s a delicate balance being social.  The privacy debate will persist.   Policies will continue to evolve.  We will struggle to retain control.  But, individual and companies will be less private and more social.

What’s your perspective?