When will we learn: Think twice before gabbing to media

Mastering public relations requires a tricky balancing act. Leaders need to appear accessible to the media without revealing too much.

Colin Angle recently fell out of balance—and paid the price.

Angle, 50, is co-founder and CEO of iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuum. In an interview with Reuters, Angle spoke in detail about aspects as iRobot’s proprietary technology. His apparent goal was to highlight what differentiates the Roomba from its competitors and hype its potential to harness smart technology.

As the interview shifted to data privacy concerns, Angle elaborated on ways in which iRobot could capitalize on the Roomba’s cutting-edge virtual simultaneous localization and mapping capabilities.

Angle said VSLAM technology—which enables the Roomba to map its

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surroundings as it self-vacuums the floor—allows iRobot to potentially cut deals with other Internet-connected device makers to share Roomba-generated data. He implied that iRobot could sell mapping data from customers’ homes to companies such as Apple, Google and Amazon to enhance their smart-technology products and services.

Predictably, privacy groups erupted over Angle’s plans. Racing to repair the damage, Angle issued clarifications after the article appeared. But by stoking anxiety about misusing customer data, he created a public-relations problem.

Before speaking with the media—or on the record with any large group—rehearse how you will address controversial or sensitive matters so that you don’t say something that triggers a firestorm.

— Adapted from “Lessons from iRobot CEO Colin Angle’s Data Privacy Fiasco,” Patrick Gorman, www.chiefexecutive.net.