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The Real Cost of a Data Breach for Your Brand (and How to Best Protect Yourself) The aftermath can hurt in more ways than just a bank balance.

By Tom Popomaronis

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

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While technology has expanded your brand's reach, it has unfortunately created dangerous liabilities right along with it. Whereas once your data was once more or less safe within a filing cabinet, now all virtual records are at risk of falling into the wrong hands.

A data breach can be a backbreaker for any brand. There's the immediate scramble to stop the bleeding, but well past the initial clean-up, the ripple effects can cripple a company for years.

Being proactive against this threat is pivotal to any brand's survival in the 21st century. Recognizing the true cost of a data breach is but the first step to shore up your brand's vulnerabilities. Taking actions to ensure your defensive systems are well implemented will set your company apart and quite possibly save it when you find yourself under attack.

Customer trust dwindles

Customer trust is the cornerstone of any brand's success, and a failure of data security impacts this all-important area immediately. Studies show that private data such as credit card and social security numbers are top targets and that 48 percent of consumers have cut ties with brands that have had a security breach.

Anyone who has gone through identity theft can attest to how frustrating and time-consuming the recovery process can be. If the cause can be directly linked to a company's negligence, then harsh backlash will certainly follow. It can take years to properly build a loyal base of customers, and a data breach can dismantle this overnight.

Sales and brand loyalty will surely be affected by a data breach, but the damage may extend far beyond these external aspects.

Related: 4 Statistical Reasons Data Security Should Be a Top Priority for Small Businesses

Trade secrets are out in the open

Intellectual property is what gives you an edge over competitors. It's one of few ways a smaller business can hope to contend with industry juggernauts who have more funding and experience. If these hard-earned secrets are spilled, there's not much that can be done to contain them again. The internet doesn't forget, and once made public, your secrets will remain so.

Your supply chain sources, sensitive data and all the details which make you stand out in the market can become diluted overnight. With the right team, you can find another angle in time and possibly recover. However, if the crux of your company's business model relies on a few key secrets, a single breach can do some serious damage.

Suffice to say, a data breach can drive a promising day straight into the gutter and leave your business in pain for much longer. A data breach blows the doors off any sense of security for your customer base and is blood in the water to competitors. The best way to attend to both issues is to ensure your internal systems are prepared to meet the moment.

Information is the best fortification

As any brand grows in scope, you become a more lucrative target, and there's no outright way to avoid this. It's inevitable a data breach attempt will be made on a long enough timescale. If you cannot dodge a blow, then your brand best learn to absorb it.

Dale Walls, a founding partner of Corsica Technologies and past systems engineer for the United States Marine Corps, offered this recommendation in a recent email exchange: "There's no single solution which can stop data breaches; what you need is an overall roadmap and multiple redundancies as your defense. With the rise of remote work you have employees potentially using unsecured networks all over the world and, of course, there's always the more active threat of hackers as well. Your security system has to keep pace with these kinds of changes if you want to keep your data safe."

Having information flowing and key metrics measured results in a well-balanced defense, which is harder to crack and quicker to respond. Know what your baseline statistics are for KPIs like intrusion attempts, access management and the number of unidentified devices on internal networks. When you see suspicious activities that exceed these boundaries, you can clamp down immediately.

Think of it as an immune system — it's impossible to anticipate every threat it may encounter over a lifetime. Having a higher overall level of health is within your control, however, and putting procedures in place for when the alarms sounds can make all the difference when time matters most. A healthy cyber defense system is one that speaks up when something abnormal occurs and has data readily on hand to tell you what happened.

Information is part of the solution, but as with so much else with technology, it can be a double-edged sword. Once you have this kind of power at your disposal, knowing how much to dole out and to whom is the next step.

Establish a clear hierarchy of access

Internal trust within a team is key, and restricting access to sensitive documents to essential parties naturally lowers your risk for a data breach. With fewer avenues of attack, the risk of exposure drops dramatically.

The risk here isn't so much about external predators, but a lack of data access control. When lines are muddled they are often crossed, and once data has slipped beyond the grips of your company, it is vulnerable to unaccounted risks. Whether or not it's intentional isn't relevant when the disastrous results are the same.

Does every part-time worker need access to big-picture company strategies and revenue projections? Probably not, and your data access should reflect this. Create a data control system in advance, and refer to it when you come to these crossroads. This will ultimately save your company time and ensure that only those who need to know, know.

Transparency is important and at the moment it might be easier to simply click share all. Before you do so, though, take a minute to consider who really needs access to data and how the data's exposure could potentially jeopardize your brand.

Related: 6 Tips to Stop Hackers from Stealing Your Data and Your Business

Data has become a valuable currency in itself, and just like the money it represents, it requires its own version of an alarm system before would-be robbers reach the vault. By being aware of the risks and fortifying your brand's defenses well before they are tested, you can avoid or endure a data breach without it being the end of your brand.

Tom Popomaronis

Executive Vice President of Innovation at Massive Alliance

Tom Popomaronis is executive vice president of innovation at Massive Alliance, a global agency that provides executive-reputation management and leadership-branding services.

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