In face of NSA scandal, news audiences need reassurance


The news industry loves to market itself self as a “watchdog.”

But with the ongoing revelations from the National Security Administration surveillance scandal, there are few media houses who live up to this branding. A disturbing fact, since personal integrity is one of the great concerns of the community.

You wish to build a solid relationship with your audience? Well, the NSA scandal might just be your chance. The question is: Will you take it?

Three years ago, the cloud was “it” for sharp CTOs (chief technology officers) within legacy media. Why invest in expensive in-house hardware when Google and the like would take on the burden for “free”?

One of the evangelist companies was the UK Telegraph Media Group. However, Toby Wright was far from alone. He soon was joined by an impressive string of publishers, happily adopting cloud strategies, outsourcing vital information and communication technology (ICT) functions, to deliver better services for less cost.

But what about the security? Could we really trust the cloud with sensitive information in general and safeguard the confidentiality of sources in particular?

I remember voicing my concerns at the time within a management group. I also remember being silenced, both by colleagues with higher technological competence and by external consultants, all swearing that Google was the good guy, “doing good shit.”

Today, in the middle of the eye-opening disclosures on the scale of the surveillance and the non-democratic workings around it, three points appear very clearly to me:

  • When your brand proposition is associated with a name like the Inquirer or the Sentinel, you need to practice what you preach. The Guardian stands out, in light of the current revelations, as the one brand that actually delivers on its promise – to guard us citizens against power abuse.

  • When companies offer you totally free services – you are the product.

  • When nobody can rest assured that their digital communications are safe from snooping, they will start practicing self-censorship. Sources with sensitive information will not dare to contact media companies. And if the lack of new, functioning business models won’t kill the industry, this will.

Gaining and keeping the audience trust is basic for long-term survival. To build that trust, we need to assure our customers, readers, and informers that they are safe with us. So how many of you, in the light of the recent revelations, have taken steps to assure this?

In June 1972, three men were arrested after they were caught breaking into the Democratic Party headquarters at the Watergate building in Washington, D.C. Eventually the scandal led all the way to the White House. The reason behind the break-in was to find out more about the opposition’s intentions before the election.

Result: The president of the United States had to resign.

In June 2013, the entire world seem to have been spied upon by the U.S. government. And even though the implications of the revelations are far greater, the results so far are meeker: No one has been arrested; no one has even been asked to carry the responsibility.

And our newsrooms are focused on the Edward Snowden manhunt, rather than the truth he sacrificed his personal freedom to reveal: We are all under surveillance. Massively. And illegally.

One would have expected a fast and synchronised motion out of the foggy cloud. But there is no indication this is currently happening.

On the contrary, according to IT research company Gartner, the demand is increasing.

But the vice president of the European Union and its spokesperson on digital affairs, Neelie Kroes, warned in a recent statement that a market attitude change might prove costly for cloud providers if — or should I say when — customers lose trust: “If I were an American cloud provider, I would be quite frustrated with my government right now.”

So what are my points?

  • Guarantee safety for those who chose to communicate with you. Safety is essential if you intend to build a sustainable “customer-first” strategy. If this cannot be done digitally, create other routines.

  • Use your consumer power. Synchronise action to put pressure on the cloud providers to cease exploiting your customer base.

  • Raise your voices. You are community builders; create opinion against this democratic disaster.

  • Rise to the expectation of your market: Be the sentinel for those who have neither the time, nor the know-how or energy to defend their own rights. Then tell them about it.

They will gratify you by continuing to buy your products.