Richard Cook

My parents ran a business importing oriental arts and crafts when I was a kid. They would often take my sister, our three dogs, and me to art fairs to sell wares to collectors and dealers across the country. On one occasion a woman bought a lacquer stone paperweight inlaid with mother of pearl. She returned it at the next event saying she had changed her mind and wanted a full refund. When I asked my father, a tough Yorkshire man who had worked in the wool mills since he was twelve, he said: “The customer is always right”. 

If only Dad had been on the board of 23andMe, the company that asks us to send samples of spit so they can see whether our tongues curl, what percentage of us is Jewish and how likely we are to die of cancer. 23andMe suffered a massive data breach and is now facing over 30 lawsuits from customers whose private medical records have been stolen. There were over 14k records stolen in the first instance so 30 lawsuits may be just the beginning. 

The response from 23andMe to its affected customers, which one can imagine came from its lawyers rather than PR team, arrived in a letter to the initial victims of the data breach:

“Users negligently recycled and failed to update their passwords following these past security incidents, which are unrelated to 23andMe.

Therefore, the incident was not a result of 23andMe’s alleged failure to maintain reasonable security measures.” 

The letter failed to acknowledge the millions of other users whose password hygiene may have been on point, but whose private medical data may have been exposed by a function on the platform that enables users to connect with other DNA relatives. Nearly 7 million of them. 

Another example of someone who could have done with my dad on their team is Sir Keir Starmer who was on LBC radio with Nick Ferrari. A caller rang up to ask what he stood for.  

This could have been a great opportunity to set out the stall, reiterate his points and welcome the question. Instead, the leader of the opposition seemed to get frustrated and barked: “Anyone who doesn’t know what I stand for has not been paying attention.” He went on to explain that he has laid out his five pledges in five big speeches…. 

So, if you don’t know what he said, that is on you, dear voter, not the leader of the opposition. 

The reality is that neither Sir Keir Starmer, 23andMe or any other institution, business or personality will win over an audience or generate goodwill by telling the audience they are wrong. 

Whilst instinct and legal advice may suggest that accepting blame and apologising is a mistake, losing your audience‘s trust is a bigger mistake. 

Looking for more PR insights? Read our last blog on the power of PR campaigns here.