Categories: Trust and reputations

19 August 2010


Musing on PR, privacy & confidence – part 2

What are we PRs to do with the troublesome issue of privacy? We certainly have an interest in leading this debate because reputations are linked to the public’s perception of its protection.

So what kind of resolution should we be advising our clients to seek in this brave new world? Well, perhaps we should be telling them to win public confidence.

With the modern mantra people are told to trust only what’s transparent. The opaque will have to make a case for itself. Actually, I think almost all conspicuous transparency is fake. I am sure that in an honest world, we have to live with opacity. We need institutions to be capable of trustworthiness and secrecy and we require a public which accepts that fact.

There’s a difference between trust in individuals and confidence in institutions. Confidence is what brands are all about – it is the emotional bond marketing tries to generate – because it is about convincing people that promises will be fulfilled. As true friends know, true trust requires one to forgo the expectation of reciprocity as the basis of the relationship (call it open-ended). Confidence in firms and institutions, on the other hand, is conditional, negotiated and limited. As Norman Lewis usefully observes:

“Seligman [Adam B. Seligan’s book The Problem of Trust] argues convincingly that if a trusting act was based upon calculation of expected outcomes or on the rational expectation of a quantified outcome, this would not be an act of trust at all but an act based on confidence.”

Here Norman Lewis explains:

“Trust not only entails negotiating risk, it implies risk (by definition, if it is a means of negotiating that which is unknown). But the risk is specific. It is based upon the implicit recognition of others’ capacity to act freely and in unexpected ways. Unconditionality and engagement sit at the heart of trust relations.”

Lewis supports Seligan’s argument for minimal state interference in privacy enforcement on the grounds that it would abolish risk and enshrine distrust in legal doctrine. They’re on to something that PRs know about; trust and reputations are about what people say and think about you, what they confer on you. Lewis remarks:

“Trust is therefore a very rare commodity and because it is based on free will, trust cannot be demanded, only offered and accepted. Trust and mistrust thus develop in relationship to free will and the ability to exercise that will, as different responses to aspects of behaviour that can no longer be adequately contained within existing norms and social roles.”

But I’m not sure that I share their distaste for legal sanctions as strongly as they do. Sometimes the law is required to put people and companies in their place. But that’s an issue of degree. I do share their desire to link levels of privacy corporations provide with levels of confidence people put in them. So where there is low trust or confidence there should be low privacy and vice verse.

In short, we should trust our lawyers and doctors with our inner lives. But we should be wary on Facebook of what we reveal and worry about what they will do with the information and why.

The best indication of the levels of consumer confidence that exist in society has to be the choices people make when it comes to spending their own money. Right now, the free services the likes of Google provide, gives them an incentive to betray our privacy. Otherwise they’d have no sustainable means of economic survival; no ad revenue and no innate value to attract investors.

However, that said, the key to success lies with PRs and their work to change social attitudes. This challenge is about managing relationships between firms and institutions and their various stakeholders. That requires that we engage and listen and respond to the real-world’s concerns.

We have to help firms and institutions set realistic and meaningful expectations about the bargain they are striking with different audiences, in return for the level of confidence they demand or expect from others. As Lewis insight-fully observes about life online:

“The tentative conclusion and the fundamental insight this approach offers is that privacy attitudes and behaviours will change according to the level of trust or mistrust people have with regard to the people or institutions they are interacting with. How much they trust the potential beneficiary of their self-disclosure is now [I say going to be] the overriding motivator of behaviour.”

If PRs want to be seen to be advocates for trust, confidence and reputations in society, this is among the biggest debates of all that we should seek to influence.

3 responses to “Musing on PR, privacy & confidence – part 2”

  1. Peter Walker says:

    Tread carefully public realtions professional because privacy, confidentiality hasn’t been a matter for high flown debate for quite some time. Yes of course all of us who are CIPR members have an obligation under the code in regards to confidentiality for clients – of course the courts won’t recognise it and marking a document ‘DRAFT’ or ‘Client work in progress’ or setting an embargo won’t help either

    Since the Data Protection Act and the Data Protection Commissioner came into being the sword of damaclese is hanging over your head. The Human Rights act only makes things worse. Are you /is your firm registered under the act and are you a Data manager /provider, do you have agreements in place with your clients as a data processor for them .? If you haven’t get onto your legal people now and those at your clients’ too.

    Have you run an event perhaps a seminar for a charity, collected the names, done the mailing and then when the charity comes to you and says that was marvellous could you let us have the list of the people you invited and those who came did you just pass the list over and feel good about the contribution you had made to awareness understanding.

    It all get’s nasty when you get a call from the Data Commissioner saying that they have received a complaint because personal details provided to you to invite someone to a conference on cruelty to tadpoles has been used by the charity that staged the seminar to ask for donations or supplied to their local branch chairman who has made contact and invited the person to join.

    You breached that persons privacy when you passed over his or her details provided for one purpose to people who used it for another without getting that perons explicit agreement. I know a very professional firm who were provided with information on a customer complaint in order to darft briefing materials and advise on a response to a Minister about the individuals complaint against the firm. It took three years in the Scottish Courts and two formaidable submissions to the Data Protection Commissioner before the case was thrown out on the grounds that that had been no breach of confidentiality or breach of privacy or human rights because the firm’s contract with the client identified them as a dataprocessor for the client and set out in clear detail the services they were supplying.

    This isn’t theorising or behavioural science this is serious doo doo folks – smell the coffee and remember it isn’t served in the cells.


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  3. Paul Seaman says:

    Peter, good points. You have come at the issue from a different perspective to me, but a no less valid one. I think the issue of privacy – including data protection – needs an airing from top-to-bottom by PRs. Your example of passing on data (lists) for use for different purposes – or different bodies – than originally intended, touches on exactly what goes on in the online world all the time. Much of it is to our benefit and much not. Then there’s that thing called trust…