Tina Stow is a vice president and member of APCO’s issues management practice based in Washington, D.C.
Yesterday President Obama unveiled his Administration’s white paper on online privacy. Among other things, the much-anticipated document – Consumer Data Privacy in a Networked World – calls on Congress to adopt a Consumer Privacy Bill of Rights and charges industry to do more self-policing but under the watchful enforcement of federal regulators.
While the white paper has been in the works for months, yesterday’s event tops off a number of recent events that have served as a somewhat predictable trigger and a flashpoint for a broader public dialogue around the protection of online consumer privacy.
As awareness grows about how companies are collecting, using, maintaining and disclosing consumer information, so grows the public expectation that those companies will be honest and transparent about their information practices. Clearly articulating and demonstrating privacy practices is becoming every bit as important to a company’s brand and reputation as their actual products and services.
And as the decibel level of the public debate rises, lip service won’t cut it. Companies have to walk the real walk of privacy protection. Responsibility in this area must be a priority that is championed from an organization’s leadership and embedded as a cultural norm. To be effective, there must be checks and balances and importantly, companies must invest before an issue arises.
To be sure, the pressure for industry to be more transparent about privacy protections will only intensify in the weeks and months to come. At the same time, communications about these practices should be clear, concise, easily understood, and in a word, true. Consumers must trust that a company is sincere and accountable. Without that commitment, companies risk attracting their own regulatory investigations and – most critically – they risk sacrificing the trust and confidence of consumers, employees, customers and shareholders.