Pearson ponders privacy for IBM

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IBM Corp.’s recent naming of Harriet Pearson as its first chief privacy officer underscored the increasing importance b-to-b technology marketers are placing on privacy initiatives.

Pearson will oversee the development and implementation of all of Big Blue’s privacy programs. A lawyer and engineer by training, she was most recently IBM’s director of public affairs.

Prior to joining IBM in 1993, Pearson practiced law in Washington and worked as an engineer for Shell Offshore Inc. in Louisiana and Texas.

BtoB: IBM Chairman-CEO Lou Gerstner has said that privacy is not a technology issue, but a policy issue, and that the framework needed must involve the technology industry, the private sector in general and public officials. Will IBM be taking a leadership role here?

Pearson: That statement means that looking at privacy issues and information is a very complex arrangement. There is no one silver-bullet cause that works for everyone. What we’re saying is that government and industry can’t walk alone.

This means that we will be taking a leadership role. What we will continue to do is work with other businesses across industries, and look for best practices in managing data. And we’ll then say to other businesses, 'Look, these are the best practices we’ve developed and you should look at them.'

We’ll do b-to-b outreach in that area. Most of our customers are businesses. We are also going to ramp up efforts to talk about privacy to our own customers. We will carry our expertise into privacy issues because our major customers have been asking for it.

BtoB: No doubt, privacy is the direct marketing issue of the moment. But on a broader scale, what does your appointment mean for IBM?

Pearson: My appointment as chief privacy officer says that we have to have someone at the 50,000-foot level who will think about privacy issues and put them into action. For IBM, the largest IT company in the world, it will mean looking at issues ranging from marketing practices to Web issues to employee practices, and making sure that the policies we implement will be the right ones. And, ultimately, it is to create an environment of trust that we hope to create for the networked world.

BtoB: IBM earlier this year introduced a companywide opt-in program. Is this continuing, and how does it affect Internet direct marketing?

Pearson: Yes. Much of our recent privacy activity is focused on online direct marketing.

In 1999 we were the first online marketer to announce that we wouldn’t advertise on Web sites that failed to post privacy policies. We went through our advertising agency, Ogilvy & Mather Worldwide, and said we’ll stop buying on sites that don’t do this. Ninety percent of them began to. So this is an initiative we’re constantly running in our marketing group. We are also updating our own privacy Web statements and making sure we’re on top of the market.

Another thing we are thinking through is how we should do direct mail in the online space. We’re developing an internal policy. The gestalt of it is that we are not going to e-mail an individual unless we have a specific relationship with them or unless they asked to be on that list. We’ve been working to implement this. In an organization as large as ours, that’s a process.

BtoB: With regard to privacy, what keeps you awake at night?

Pearson: What keeps me awake at night is that the pace of change is so intense and fast that it is difficult to keep your finger on the pulse of what the right thing to do is. As a marketer, you’re out to maintain your brand identity, and you need to keep your finger on the pulse of global attitudes and interests. This is getting more difficult to do with regard to privacy, making sure you’re always doing the right thing.

What makes me go to sleep is recognizing that the marketplace is a very efficient place. I think the trend is that the business community is responding to privacy issues.

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