Since the PRISM and NSA scandals first broke, concerns have been raised over digital fingerprints and one's online privacy rights.While some of the initial (and alarming) headlines around the PRISM and NSA controversies have died down, the greater issue of user privacy is still very much alive. I’ve wondered what the net effect will be for the technology industry’s ability to cultivate trust and confidence among customers. PR departments often look to avoid controversy, although there are times when they might opt to embrace it. So what’s the best path?

Someone told me that the privacy issue won’t be relevant because privacy is more or less ‘dead,’ but I’m not so sure. I recently spoke to a Silicon Valley PR manager, Colin Jordan, who has dealt firsthand with a public relations conundrum in the wake of PRISM. Working for a cloud service provider, Colin and his team were faced with the decision to either steer clear of the NSA scandal or confront it head-on. Ultimately they decided the best course of action was to make a direct response.

“It helped to have executive leadership that was willing to address any questions or concerns we received regarding our product and data security,” Colin said. “As far as negative publicity went, it was our chance to turn a negative into a positive. People were writing extremely negative articles around cloud technologies and projecting major losses for the cloud industry. However, this was an opportunity to point out that a weakness was recognized and was actually going to make the industry and its offerings stronger.”

Colin and his team didn’t stop at addressing customer questions clearly and honestly – they went a step further, and went on the offensive with a privacy initiative to make file-sharing in the enterprise more secure, giving IT a leg up in monitoring content. He explained:

“While most people are quick to stay away from controversies like this, I felt like there was an opportunity to make a statement about the confidence in our solution. Furthermore, it gave us the opportunity to re-emphasize our faith in the future of the cloud technology industry as a whole.”

This is just one case of when a PR team decided it was more important to take a clear position than to shy away from controversy. In my opinion, giving customers a clear view of where a company stands simply makes more sense than being frustratingly vague, which can come across as indifferent and insensitive. Ultimately, any concern your customers have is relevant, so you need to have an answer, even if it’s “We’re still working on this.” Privacy isn’t just about secrets – it’s about trust, and trust is a foundation of business.

There will always be another controversy around the corner, and not all of them are appropriate for PR teams to “touch.” As always, a little intuition on a case-by-case basis goes a long way in dealing with controversy.

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