Ashley Madison and the public shame of it all

Ashley Madison and the public shame of it all

Written by Rob Smith

The release of 33 million accounts stolen from Ashley Madison, a dating website for married people, his created furore about the ‘morals’ of the business, its clients and the hackers responsible.

It has reminded me of the time in the 1990s when a marketing magazine tested the moral position of various PR agencies by sending them a brief purportedly from a Myra Hindley supporters group asking if they would campaign for her release from prison.

Upon receipt of written responses to the brief, the magazine published the replies. These ranged from unequivocal rejections of the brief expressing disgust at Hindley’s crimes, to those that communicated a genuine desire to work on the campaign.

Was it morally wrong for some PR agencies to say they would represent Hindley? And are any, or all, of Ashley Madison, its clients and hackers morally wrong to have either created the site, joined as members or tried to destroy it?

My view is that all parties, be they the Hindley-supporting PR agencies or the Ashley Madison stakeholders, would have known that their actions could be interpreted as morally dubious by the media and, more potently, by the public.

24/7 judgement

Today, social media has become judge, jury and executioner in the court of public opinion through its powerful role in calling out people and brands that ‘the internet’ determines have done wrong. Just look what happened to the dentist who shot Cecil the Lion.

(By the way, I can recommend the excellent book on this phenomenon published earlier this year by Jon Ronson So You’ve Been Publically Shamed).

Back in the 90s there was no social media to speak of. If those agencies expressed that they would work with Hindley today, I suspect they would have found themselves at the centre of a Twitterstorm. This would inevitably lead to them featuring on other national news outlet websites. It seems the type of story Mail Online would find almost irresistible.

From my perspective, I am not going to judge anyone involved in the Ashley Madison or Myra Hindley scenarios. But these situations, even though on the face of it very different and many years apart, do have one theme that binds them.

If what you or your business does can be regarded as morally dubious by the Twittersphere, you have to be prepared to constantly manage that risk by processing your plans through a moral filter. Ask yourself if what you or your business is doing could create moral outrage.

If so, no matter how opposed you feel to that potential for outrage, you should take action by assessing which scenarios could create issues and how to mitigate them. In these circumstances, it could have been through enhancing digital security, checking the source of controversial PR briefs or simply not posting a trophy kill on social media.

From a public relations point of view, if you don’t actively manage risk and unexpectedly become the focus of public scrutiny, reputational trial by social media and news outlets is swift and often devastating.

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