Crisis Rx for DoubleClick

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Internet advertising pioneer DoubleClick has responded poorly in defending its online privacy policy, partly because the company has been tone-deaf on the real issues, and partly because its policy actually is not very defensible.

Either way, the company needs to turn the situation around immediately before it gets completely rolled over by its critics and would-be regulators in federal and state government. We recommend two things: a serious rethinking of how it handles the privacy of its database lists, and some savvy PR counsel on crisis management.

The history of brands in crisis is clear on this: The best way for DoubleClick to regain its footing is to admit its mistake -- in this case, merging lists of individual consumer identities with lists of the same consumers' Web activities after earlier doubletalk about its intentions -- and completely reform its policy.

DoubleClick should in fact become the industry leader for the highest standards of protecting consumer privacy. Its plans to name a chief privacy officer, to retain an outside company to conduct "privacy audits" and to make its "opt-out" option easier for consumers are a start, but only that. A more important step is changing the way it deals with the consumers whose data it seeks to collect.

In the long run, the so-called "opt-out" option is a reasonable solution for marketers and the public. Opt-out -- when clearly communicated up front and made simple to use -- lets consumers elect not to have their data collected. However, DoubleClick, since it has chosen to be at the leading edge of Web data collecting, should consider going a step farther and offer to collect data only from consumers who expressly say yes -- an "opt-in" plan, as it is called.

Marketers may be entranced by data-based target marketing, but they seem to forget there are two sides to this transaction. Consumers, who should be able to control their own data, have to be convinced that target marketing offers something for them, too. Data collectors need to promote the benefits of participating and perhaps provide incentives, as we have said in this space before, whether opt-in or opt-out is the policy.

Would interim adoption of an "opt-in" policy mean DoubleClick might suffer short-term against more ruthless competitors? Perhaps. But when a company is in a deadly PR spiral, only drastic action works. Ask Johnson & Johnson about immediately yanking millions of dollars worth of Tylenol off shelves during the Tylenol poisoning scare. On the other hand, Coca-Cola Co. dithered during its crisis in Europe last year and is still trying to recover. In seeking a remedy for its present pains, DoubleClick would do well to consider these lessons and act boldly.

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