Can you have privacy under a spotlight?

Can you have privacy under a spotlight?

Claire Walker

Claire Walker

There’s no doubt that the recent revelations surrounding Facebook and Cambridge Analytica have brought the notion of personal privacy under even greater scrutiny. Throughout April, we have been finding out whether or not our own data was shared and, at a time when the GDPR regulations are now imminent, more and more of us are clamouring to better understand and protect our personal data.

But what does this mean for those living in the public eye? Most of us are present on social media but what about those people who are actively and publicly promoting themselves across the media. Do the same privacy rules apply?

For many companies, this notion of privacy may not just be a personal matter but also a business one. As comms professionals, we are well versed in building up the reputation of CEOs or business leaders to increase awareness of a company. In some cases, however, business leaders are more than just synonymous with a brand, sometimes they ARE the brand. Just look at Elon Musk and Richard Branson. As a result, they have to act like a brand, as they have a significant impact on their company’s ability to win and maintain the trust of their customers. In other words, they are expected to be fully transparent and to lay all their (metaphorical) cards out on the table.

Being in the public eye and under a spotlight poses risks, so how can you still ensure that the person concerned has some level of personal privacy?

Assess the risks

Before pushing someone into the spotlight, you need to first identify where the risks and potential privacy breaches lie. You can do this by conducting a privacy audit.

This first involves discussing what the person is happy to share publicly and those areas that they wish to keep private. Then, you need to analyse the vulnerabilities where this kind of information could be brought to light. This goes much further, collating all the information that is publicly available to gain a true idea of their current public presence. With all of us now constantly sharing so much information online, many of us are simply unaware of what is actually out there. I’m sure you have seen how old tweets have come back to haunt many a celeb.  This audit aims to uncover forgotten information, unknown information and also joins together seemingly random bits of information which forms a picture or profile of the individual.

Beyond assessing their background, you also need to analyse the reputation of those that they’re associated and working with to avoid (and plan for) any unexpected surprises.

Having this comprehensive overview enables you to make informed decisions on how to best build their profile and to be proactive and preventative, rather than reactive, when it comes to safeguarding their privacy.  You know when and where problems could arise, and you can begin to close identified loop holes. All unwanted content that contains inaccurate, out of date personal information or that is not of interest to the public can be removed. But be aware, this is not so easily the case for defamatory information.

Take it or leave it

Equipped with this knowledge, you are also able to assess when to dismiss or to engage with an opportunity; knowing when you should be proactively approaching the media and when you should hold back.

Unfortunately, some people abuse the web by trolling others, and you shouldn’t overlook the threat this poses. It’s vital to determine whether this is a ‘real’ person with a reasonable concern or complaint, and so deserving of a response or, if they’re just a troll who thrives on creating unfounded controversy. Having performed that ‘privacy audit’ you’re able to make that call. If the claim is completely speculative, do not engage! The second you open the door to a troll, you’re inviting in trouble.

Similarly, you may come up against the issue of someone intentionally spreading fake news about the person. In this case, it is important to respond and counteract this by directing the public to factual and reliable sources that disprove the claims. You can also report this fake news outlet to the platform in question. For example, by filing a complaint with Twitter.

And if the worst happens?

It’s important to state at this stage, that despite your best efforts it’s not possible to guarantee someone complete privacy protection.

If a breach of privacy does occur, legally it would be advised to not respond and disclose further private information, but to combat inaccurate allegations, and be aware that the person is entitled to a right of reply. Quickly sharing their side of the story can dramatically shift the tone and balance of public discussions and conversations. I’m sure that many of you would have been greatly moved by the interviews with Jennifer Lawrence after her private photos were leaked online.  And in instances where a privacy breach reveals wrongdoing, as we’re currently seeing with Mark Zuckerberg, then mitigation action will need to be taken immediately.

Once you have said your piece, it is time to leave the matter there. Let it go. You may still be familiar with the old phrase, “today’s news will be tomorrow’s fish and chips papers” and with the shift online, news now has an even shorter shelf-life.

Of course, online articles cannot be so easily thrown away as a newspaper. The Founding Director of the Life Sciences Project at Harvard Business School once referred to the permanent availability of information online as a “digital tattoo” – but there are ways to help them fade.

It’s vital you re-start a cadence of regular ‘business as usual’ content to help displace and dilute the negative news and ensure that you’re also being spoken about for the right reasons, not just the wrong ones. It’s about re-balancing that person’s public presence. You may have seen the recent exposé of Elon Musk’s family splashed across the news, but if you search for him on the internet, you come up with an array of other content and stories.

To further push down those unwanted Google results, maximise your use of third parties and back links. Having a reference from a third party or even setting up your own fundraising page can all help create more ‘background noise’ that isn’t associated with that personal privacy breach. And if needs be, you can always invoke Google’s right to be forgotten.

Note as well that though GDPR rules may not apply if it is an individual who has breached your privacy, if it is a company, such as a tabloid newspaper, who has leaked personal secrets or images then they are technically processing your personal data, without your consent. That’s a fineable offence!

 Striking this rather delicate balance between privacy and transparency, promoting a company and safeguarding personal information is no easy feat. But it is still possible for your business leader to make a distinction between their private and public personas, between what is general knowledge and those elements only known by their family and friends. At the end of the day, privacy is a fundamental right for all.


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