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If families want to protect their privacy, they must share more information

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The family office community is infamously private. This is, of course, fair and justified. Families and their family offices are private entities, with the right to not have their business and personal affairs pored over by the public, competitors and others.

But, too often, families believe the best way to protect their personal privacy is through extreme secrecy. In fact, the opposite is the case. We should all recognise this ourselves. Nothing pricks up our ears more than someone saying, “I have a secret”. It encourages interest, speculation and attention. It’s human nature.

Outsiders trust what the family writes about themselves more than what others write about them

So, surprisingly, the best way to stay private is to share more relevant, but carefully curated, information. This comes from our latest polling, The Case for Family Websites.

Satisfy outside interest with curated information

All families are subject to outside interest. This sometimes comes from the public but more often it comes from others, such as investors, potential business partners, government, regulators, and the media. This cannot be wished away.

So, what can you do? Firstly, rather than hiding, build a proper understanding of what outsiders want to learn about you and your affairs; get into their heads and understand what is driving their interest.

In most cases, they want to know very basic details: who you are, what you do, and how you became successful. But, if there is a specific community of people interested in you, such as the local or financial community, they may have more specific information needs.

Secondly, put information that answers these questions on the Internet in a language that you recognise and captures you as a family; this can be done through creating a website for your family, family office or foundation. Satisfy outsiders’ interest with factual, straightforward answers, contextualised in a way that showcases how you see the world as a family, showcases your impact, but does not overdo it.

This usually means ensuring there are corporate biographies of you and, potentially, other family members online; that there is an overview of your family office and potentially your investment portfolio; that there is a timeline of your business, its operations and track-record; and, potentially, a page to capture news and announcements.

Going forward, when people search for you and your family, you will not only satisfy their interest – enabling them to move on to the next thing – but they will come away with answers that are accurate, up to date and represent you accurately.

Outsiders trust you more than you think

The usual riposte I hear from families and their advisers is that outsiders are never going to trust what a family writes about itself. People searching online will scroll past a family’s own website to Wikipedia, media stories or other sources of information.

I have always had my doubts about this, so we recently polled 500 people on just this topic as part of our latest piece of research. I’m a strong believer at looking directly at the data and not being driven by emotions, intuitions and received wisdom.

Remarkably, the answer is that outsiders trust what the family writes about themselves more than what others write about them; they do not see this information as biased, partial or partisan. They see it, instead, as disintermediated.

In fact, up to 67% of the public said they would read information about a family on one of their own websites, such as a family office website or otherwise. This is higher than even the number of people who said they would read an interview with the family in a newspaper they recognised.

It also, of course, highlights that if an outsider does not acquire information about you from your own website, they will get it somewhere else anyway. They will go to that newspaper coverage you do not like because it is partial or out of date. Or they might just go straight on to one of the corporate registries to download your accounts, without all the contextual information and guidance that you could provide otherwise.

Do not accidentally slip into promotion

But how do you present this information and what should the website that hosts this information look like? There is a potential risk here of the new website inviting more outside attention by giving the entirely mistaken impression that you and your family are courting attention; you could find yourself caught in a self-made beartrap.

Our polling showed this can be strategically navigated by framing the information in a carefully designed and written way. The website should not look promotional; avoid large photographs of you or the family. Instead, prefer a design and format that highlights the mission of your family or family business. 33% of people thought that featuring family imagery appeared attention-seeking, whereas only 14% of people said the same about a mission-centric design.

In the same way, prefer language that is professional, detached and formal. Write biographies in a formal, third-person style rather than informal language or, god forbid, the first person; over a quarter of those polled thought that an individual or family was attention-seeking after reading a biography written in the first person.

There is more information online about families than ever before – and the amount of data is only set to increase with the growth of social media and full financial transparency, which is coming down the track. The wise families are those ones who recognise this trend and get ahead of the curve; they do not shirk away from interest. They recognise it and meet it in the middle.

Jordan Greenaway is Managing Director of Transmission Private, which recently published The Case for Family Websites

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