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.”
“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.