Executive Technology Management

Although they tend not to invite the comparison, business leaders and politicians have a great deal in common. Both jobs typically require people skills, education, shrewdness, and talent in some aspect of their chosen field. However, until recently, one aspect that remained unique to politicians was the ability to act. Scripted TV appearances, carefully guarded statements, and excellent on-the-spot oration are an expected, even welcomed, part of the job for politicians. Traditionally, business leaders didn’t find themselves in front of the camera nearly as often. Over the past five years this lack of public interest has rapidly changed. The internet, and the blistering pace at which it moves, coupled with the ubiquity of cell phones and porous digital security have created an atmosphere where the smallest slip of the tongue can be captured and spread almost instantly.

The results are drastic. When Tony Hayward, the head of BP during the massive gulf oil spill, said “I want my life back” during a impromptu interview it was an exasperated plea from a man inundated with bad news. In another time, his words would have been forgotten as the off-the-cuff idiocy they were. Instead, critics worldwide latched on to the comments almost instantly and pointed out that while the company he ran poisoned thousands of miles of ocean and caused incalculable damage to wildlife Mr. Hayward took time off to participate in a yachting event. His remarks, and his actions, took on special significance when contrasted to the poverty of the fisherman who relied on the gulf for their livelihoods. The ensuing publish backlash and media firestorm cost Mr. Hayward his job, and is partially credited with securing some of the political support needed to approve the huge payments BP was forced to make following the disaster.

Business leaders find themselves in glass houses, looking out at a public that enjoys nothing more than to see the powerful and privileged stumble. Banks and other powerful institutions have recently faced the court of public opinion in an online atmosphere where all the standard rules of public relations don’t seem to work. Corporate social responsibility (CSR) efforts are instantly branded as hypocrisy, and coming clean (the standard public relations tactic) only makes the public (and the politicians that answer to them) angrier. Even seemingly personal decisions are dragged into the public eye by a watchful, and vocal, public: When Chick-fil-A’s religious donation policy hit the spotlight in 2012, the backlash was instant.

There are a few forces fanning the flames. Digital media sites give preference to stories that evoke anger or anxiety due to the higher click-through and share rates. Headlines about wealthy, evil business leaders fit perfectly. Unscrupulous investors have also found a way to monetize the failings of executives by unearthing dirty laundry, betting against the stock, and then leaking the story.

Business have been slow to address the risks this new digital atmosphere presents, but they are now beginning to implement some of the same practices that politicians have been using for years. Boards, just like party brass, are beginning to reject otherwise qualified candidates for upper management roles based on potentially dangerous dirty laundry. They have also begun to encourage their managers to carefully word emails, practice extreme digital security (covering the camera on phones, laptops, etc), and trust only a select few to speak freely with. They have also begun to practice a new kind of PR, one that is much more guarded and combative.

Business leaders in charge of their company’s technology need to be aware of the risks, and begin working to secure against a leak. Educating all employees on the need for digital security, educating top managers on the dangers of off-the-cuff remarks, and implementing highly specific rules and guidelines to minimize risk should be standard procedure in all businesses. Detailed investigation by seasoned journalists exposing greed, corruption, and immoral behaviour in unbiased publications should be encouraged, but as a corporation it is the CTO’s job to maximize digital security and best practice in an attempt to avoid an unwarranted and damaging online firestorm.