Issues Management

Erasing Your Revenge Porn Past

Yes, I’ve succumbed to the lowest common denominator to best grab your attention. How shameful to stoop so low, when I’ve been schooled to present an accurate reflection of the subject matter in question. Call me the clickbaiter. There are, I hasten to add, mitigating circumstances. Namely, generating your interest in the General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, but hang on there, it is important. You can read more here.

Developed by various parts of the European Union (EU), the regulation intends to strengthen data protection for those inside the European community. It comes into play from the 25th May 2018 and also incorporates the transfer of data outside the EU. It should be on any discerning corporate reputation specialist’s radar. Without getting into the regulatory minutiae, this is essentially about addressing the perceived imbalance in terms of data control, between the general public and big business; whereas it’s perceived that the latter has too much control, so it’s only right that citizens enjoy more power over their own personal data and thus the new, all-governing regulation – hurrah.

Now, it’s a broad piece of governance, but there’s some interesting aspects in there, including a soundbite to thrill the ears of any sci-fi aficionado – get this, the ‘Right to Erasure’ – it’s made for a lyric, but I digress. Individuals can require the “controller” – say, Google – to erase data. It’s not altogether new; it has been with us for a few years; there was a landmark case in 2014, when the European Court of Justice ruled against the Big G, in the case of Mario Gonzalez, who unfortunately requested that a link to a Spanish paper about an auction for his foreclosed home for a debt that he subsequently paid, be removed. He won, but his misfortune lies in the fact that his case was first and so he has very little chance of being forgotten for the next few years.

Now, this gets more interesting I feel, in light of the fact that any request to erase is hindered by the subjectivity of the notion of ‘public interest’. For instance, the individual who contracted HIV a decade ago would claim that such a story has very little in the way of public interest and I would have sympathy with this view. However, the story would have far more interest for the individual’s health insurer. So, who’s to make these big decisions about our personal histories and playing the arbiter in terms of public interest? Yes, you’ve got it - the so-called data controllers – unelected organisations will have court-like influence to change the record, or not, without the fundamental checks on their own power. Grave new world, anyone? As always, comments welcome.  

Are Class Actions on the rise?

Centrelink, the Australian Government’s welfare services program is in a spot of bother. Days prior to Christmas, its new automated system started firing off letters for non-existent debts; lots of letters, 20,000 each week apparently. You can read more here.

The situation has, unsurprisingly, led some commentators to point to a possible class action if the matter was to affect the emotional or physical wellbeing of those in receipt of the letters.

Much has been written in recent years about social media’s ability to unite affected individuals in terms of such lawsuits; the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2015 is one such example, whereby a plethora of platforms were used to galvanise plaintiffs to register their grievance towards the car manufacturer. Although, in an interesting aside, the dispute in the United States between Gawker Media and a group of its former interns did demonstrate the complexities of such cases, when the federal court ruled that plaintiffs could reach out to known interns via social media, but were not permitted to “friend” individuals on Facebook – see more here.

In light of such coverage, I was keen to gauge whether my instincts – which told me that class actions were now growing at an exponential rate – were correct. Now, here I need to give thanks to Monash University’s Professor Vince Morabito for producing a highly illuminating study on class actions in Australia. The study assesses the Federal Court of Australia’s class action regime across 24 years, from 1992 to 2016, which recorded 370 such actions. So, was it case of an avalanche of disputes since the advent of social media? No it wasn’t, as the study shows 189 proceedings filed in the first 12 years (1992 – 2004), and 181 filed thereafter. Clearly, the reasons behind such actions are many and it would be remiss to point to any one aspect of the equation being dominant; however, the findings do offer a resolutionary opportunity to start challenging my instincts. 

Trolley collectors of the world unite!

It’s a classic case of ‘David versus Goliath’ – in one corner, Coles – one of Australia’s biggest supermarket chains; in the other, the often overlooked men and women who collect their trolleys. You can read more here.

In summary, the giant was slain (okay, I’m going too far with the metaphor); in fact, the supermarket was penalised by the Fair Work Ombudsman (FWO) for the “gross underpayment” of these workers. I chose that last word – ‘workers’ - carefully, as it goes to the heart of the matter. Essentially, the Coles defence rested on the idea that the trolley collectors were contractors and not direct employees. So, they could – in the words of the FWO’s Natalie James – “wipe [their] hands of the problem.” Not so; Ms James was unequivocal in her agency’s appetite to address big business’ exploitation of workers. Her words – “we will look up to the business at the top” – will leave corporate boardrooms with no doubt where the responsibility for such elaborate supply chains lie.

The episode is also a notable case of issue mismanagement; to clarify, issues are those situations which if left unattended have the potential to significantly affect a business – I would suggest that workers underpaid to the tune of six-figure sums is significant. In fairness, it has to be said that Coles has back-paid the workers in question and established a $500,000 fund for others who could also have been affected. 

However, the developments clearly illustrate the seemingly unrelated nature of issues – in that they are not related to us, so we don’t need to worry about them. This is an important point as it should challenge the commonly held mindset among senior teams that reputation management is exclusively about what we as a business do – our people, our products, our prices. Yet, the people who also carry out duties under our name as third parties are rashly overlooked. It’s a point that was writ large following the BP response to the blowout on the Transocean owned Deepwater Horizon and should have been enshrined across the collective executive, but it would appear that memories are short and to that end, reminders will continue to be painful. 

The value of corporate heresy

International law firm, Slater & Gordon had a particularly painful reminder of the wide-reaching effects of ‘what if’ scenarios last week, when UK Chancellor, George Osborne announced an increase in the small-claims limit and the removal of the ability to claim for general damages from minor whiplash injuries. The firm’s stock price fell 68 percentage points to a low of 69 cents, which is a veritable plunge, from the highs of $8 a share in April this year – that’s $2.5 billion in share market value wiped away.

I can’t go into the details of the case, as I haven’t got them. The episode does, however, highlight the criticality of scenario planning for businesses to best identify and resolve the threats that could damage operations.

Most discerning organisations – and I include Slater & Gordon here – would undoubtedly have a risk register, which tracks the course of such threats, but the register is only as good as the threats that have been identified, which are usually borne of internal perspectives – that is, current employees. This is not wrong, but I would counsel organisations to have a heretic to hand. That’s right, the individual in the room who goes that bit further in terms of identifying nightmare situations. Such bravado is usually found outside of the business, as external advisors aren’t encumbered by the emotional baggage that hangs round the necks of most salaried employees – loyalty being one. Granted, such advisors don’t have the insights in regards to brand heritage or corporate politics, but these are gaps that can be addressed.

Scenario planning sessions are, if done properly, heresy writ large. Threats are duly recognised and tracked to gauge their impact from a range of perspectives – brand, political, financial, community and personal. In fact, it’s vital that the session gets personal as that’s what stakeholders – primarily, the media, are looking for if anything was to go wrong. In short, they need somebody to denounce. So, let us speak the unspeakable and save ourselves from the blame game.