Lines of Communication

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As I was preparing this column, I came across several negative articles about the use of biometrics mandated by the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA). On January 1, the AICPA made the use of fingerprint biometrics a required part of the check-in process for all AICPA tests, including the Uniform CPA Examination.

In general, the authors of those articles were more upset that they had not been informed about the program than they were about the use of biometrics.

For its part, the AICPA thought it had informed all the affected parties by announcing the change in its fall 2007 newsletter. The announcement described the new check-in process and explained that the organization decided to add biometrics to enhance security, to ensure the integrity of the examination process by making it more difficult to impersonate a test candidate, and to streamline the check-in process—especially for candidates taking multiple exams at different testing sites. The newsletter article also explained that the stored biometrics data would be encrypted to protect privacy and provide security. Several AICPA chapters picked up the information and republished it in their own newsletters.

What Went Wrong?
The AICPA had the right idea about the timing and content of its message, but its communication program was too limited in several interrelated ways.

1. It relied on a single communication channel: For some minor policy changes, the use of one communication channel, such as an association newsletter, might be enough. New policies and procedures that affect critical activities, such as professional certification examinations, require a multichannel communications plan to be effective. These channels would include the association’s Web site, member mailings/mailing inserts, and a press release. Certainly, there is no guarantee that those messages will reach everyone, but the use of multiple channels will generally result in far better coverage.

2. It defined the recipients too narrowly: When the AICPA limited its announcement to one association newsletter, it restricted the definition of recipients to only AICPA members. When a policy change affects a core industry function, members of the media are also likely to be interested. In fact, most of the unhappy authors I mentioned earlier were members of the accounting industry media.

The involvement of biometrics adds another layer of interest to the media. That’s because the use of biometrics—including speaker biometrics—is still controversial. For example, several bills that either ban or allow the use of biometrics (including speaker biometrics) in schools are working their way through legislatures in the United States, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

Since the press is often in a position to influence opinions, the AICPA would have been wise to put out a press release similar to its newsletter article and send it to both accounting industry and general business media. It would also have benefited by making its public relations staff available to media interested in writing about the policy change.

3. It only made one announcement: When both the required activity and the technology are emotionally charged, or when they touch the recipients in a personal way, the communication plan needs to include periodic reminders accompanied by a reiteration of the reasons that the policy is being implemented. Using biometrics as part of the check-in process for professional certification examinations is certainly an example of a change that warrants repeated communications.

Beyond the AICPA
The design of an effective communication policy applies to a broad spectrum of speaker biometrics deployments. These can include using speaker biometrics to reset passwords, verify the identity of someone who is trying to access sensitive or personal information, such as medical or bank account records, or even purchase lunch in a school cafeteria.

The communication plan for any of these implementations should determine who needs to be informed, the content of the message or messages, the channels used to communicate the message, when the communication should occur, and even whether some or all groups of recipients can influence the application design or participate in testing.

Judith Markowitz, Ph.D., is  president of J. Markowitz Consultants and a leading independent analyst in the speech and voice biometrics fields. She can be reached at judith@jmarkowitz.com.

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