Our friends at the Churchill Club did their usual sterling job with last week’s open forum event on data privacy trends. Every member of the panel offered expertise, pointed perspectives and often humor. (But the star had to be Michelle Dennedy, whose passion for all of this—in particular privacy and kids—was palpable. It also didn’t hurt that she served up analogies such as, “Passwords should be like panties: very, very exotic, and very private;” and not just a mention, but a subtle demonstration of a possible future of “ass-thentication” for drivers sitting in car seats.)

What I found myself pondering the next day was the lack of a CMO or Corp Comms thought leader on a panel comprised of lawyers, investors and senior business people. It’s not that the panel talked above us or bored us on the fine points of data privacy law. Just the opposite, in fact: to my ears, the panelists returned again-and-again to the criticality of common sense: Morality and Ethics. “’Legal’ is just bread-and-butter on the table. Moral value matters,” one aptly said. But all the more reason why I would have loved to have heard from a senior communications leader about shaping a company’s privacy approach from the lens of brand and reputation management. What might Target CMO Jeffrey Jones have to say, for example, after a data breach that some are estimating could cost Target more than $1 billion to cover fraud losses? I’d like to ask him how he’s thinking about the potentially far bigger costs to the brand and how the company is approaching that.

We communicators have an important role to play here and we should be butting into the conversations with our business leaders and clients – early and often. One of the more provocative statements made was, “You make more money when you treat data about human beings ethically.” I have no data to refute that, but I’m skeptical. And I’m not the only one. TRUSTe (whose CEO, Chris Babel, was on the Churchill panel) issued a report last week that people are far more concerned with businesses sharing personal information than they are with NSA surveillance. Emphasis added for business leaders: your customers trust the government more than they do you.

In that kind of scenario, you need to take the advice of the panelists to act ethically. But you need your brand and communications stewards at your side, too. We communicators should be at the table with more companies talking about balancing business models with the value of a good reputation. Running crisis simulations (e.g., “We’re Target. How do we behave in the first hour? The first day? The first week and beyond?”) and forcing executives to visualize a 24-hour news cycle that can shred, in a matter of seconds, a corporate reputation built up over years or decades. There’s so much more at stake than covering credit card losses.

(Panelists included Chris Babel, @CBabel; Michelle Dennedy, @MDennedy; Barbara Lawler, @BarbGS10; Jeb Miller, @JebGMiller; Jeffrey Rabkin, @JeffreyRabkin; Fatemeh Khatibloo, @Fatemehx2)




David Bailey is an Executive Vice President for Airfoil, an integrated marketing communications firm, with offices in Silicon Valley, Detroit, London and Hong Kong.  Follow David on Twitter: @dbails