Allan Dunlavy, partner at the international reputation and privacy consultancy, Schillings, explains why authenticity, preparation and speed are the keys to defending your reputation and demanding your privacy.
As the probably apocryphal Chinese Curse goes: “May you live in interesting times”. When it comes to reputation and privacy, times certainly are interesting. Whether you are a successful individual or business, it has never been easier to lose control of your reputation and confidential information and, when this happens, there is almost always a steep price to pay in terms of trust, confidence and the freedom to operate and do business.
There is a somewhat existential debate as to what is a fact and what makes information true. The proliferation of information online, in the media and elsewhere makes it difficult, if not impossible, for audiences to seek information from a broad spectrum of sources and to consider what is most likely to be true. The sheer quantity of information can be overwhelming and opinions are formed against this backdrop.
These opinions, whether founded in true facts, alternative facts or no facts at all, are wrapped in emotion and amplified to a level that not only has never been seen before but which is becoming more pronounced. The result is an environment where guilt is presumed unless you can prove your innocence.
At the same time private and confidential information is flooding into the public domain at an astonishing rate as a result of voluntary, although usually misunderstood, disclosures on social media and involuntary disclosures from disgruntled employees and cyber-criminals. Indeed the number of cyber-attacks being reported are so numerous that the sheer volume is causing fatigue and making audiences desensitised to the issue.
The consequences of these attacks on reputation and privacy cannot be understated. That this information was expected to be confidential and not intended for public consumption only adds to the general belief that it must be true — even if it has been taken out of context, doctored or edited to entirely change the meaning. This can quickly turn into a crisis necessitating damage limitation rather than avoidance.
This surge in the availability of information is accompanied by an increase in the difficulty in identifying the true source of information and the obscuring of informational timelines.
Historical information is being presented as current and put side by side with new information. With no acknowledgement of the differing timelines that have been used to produce a ‘factual’ picture that is simply not true, it is also harder – although not impossible with the right skills – to identify and evaluate the sources of information; whether they are anonymous sources online, unidentified sources in traditional media or individuals on social media.
The difficulty in identifying the source of information along with the commingling of current and historical information creates a complex story that can be a challenge to unravel and therefore may discourage individuals and businesses from defending their position.
This is a perfect storm for your reputation and privacy. Large quantities of information, a belief that it is high quality, true information with opaque sources and, a muddled timeline, resulting in misinformed opinions being amplified quickly and persistently.
The public release of private and confidential information means that government bodies, NGOs, the media and other interested parties believe that they know plenty of true facts upon which to judge you. Your reputation is what people think about you and privacy is what people know about you. The two are inextricably linked.
The only way to truly protect your reputation and privacy is to pre-emptively identify and mitigate the internal and external risks that you are exposed to and to ensure that you are properly prepared to rapidly respond to a crisis, such as private and confidential information being unexpectedly released.
Key to this is identifying what historical information about you is available in order to take steps to remedy any falsities or misinformation that might create or feed into a story that in reality does not exist.
With these measures in place, the only right answer is to show with speed and determination that you practise what you preach and ensure that your audience receives true and up to date information so that they can reach a fair and accurate conclusion. This way you can embrace the audience that will have to decide which facts are true, what to think of you as a result and how and where to act upon these opinions.
At the point of crisis when you find your reputation and privacy under attack, it is crucial that you respond quickly and confidently as there is still a lot you can achieve in terms of putting out the fire fast and stopping the crisis from escalating.
Ultimately, being authentic, properly prepared and quick to respond to issues are the keys to taking control and ensuring that your reputation can be defended and your privacy demanded.
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