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From darlings to damaged? Managing the technology sector’s reputation in an age of heightened scrutiny

June 13, 2019

Technology has unquestionably lived up to its promise of making everyday life better and more efficient in many wonderful ways.

But in the last few years, the drawbacks have become glaringly evident. Privacy invasions. Misuse or outright theft of personal information. Workforce disruptions from AI. And, in some cases, the pursuit of corporate growth at the expense of ethics and social responsibility.

The topic of the so-called Techlash is something we’re focusing on a lot at FleishmanHillard. Our CEO, John Saunders, spoke at Collision Conf just a couple of weeks ago, being interviewed by one of the most prominent reporters in this space, Donie O’Sullivan from CNN. And today, we launch a report with the same title as John’s talk: Darlings to Damaged? Managing the technology sector’s reputation in an age of heightened scrutiny. You can see a byline from John on the topic that appeared in one of Canada’s leading publications, The Toronto Star, here.

In both John’s presence at Collision and our marketing content, we assess the very real reputational challenges that technology companies now face. The findings combine original research with insights from some of the world’s leading thinkers in this space, including the CEO of the Consumer Technology Association, the CIO of Canada, a Harvard Fellow and many more. But we also pierce the gloom by considering how to ensure technology can continue to be a force for good in a world that increasingly needs drawing together, not pushing apart.

So… what did our research – which was carried out by FleishmanHillard TRUE Global Intelligence and surveyed a representative sample of 1,002 adults each in the US and UK – uncover?

First, while media coverage tends to stress the tech sector’s shortcomings, much of the public do still embrace technology and trust its providers – 8 out of 10 Americans embrace or like technology and use it when they can, and 82% of those questioned generally trust technology companies. This positive sentiment exists in the UK too, although at a slightly lower level. 75% of Britons say they like and use technology when they can, and 79% generally trust technology companies overall.

However, when it comes to trust, there is a generational difference between the two countries. In the US, younger generations are more dubious. Gen Z leads this skepticism (26%), with Millennials (22%) following shortly behind. In the UK, however, this trend is reversed. It is in fact the older generations that trust technology companies less (Silent Generation: 38% and Boomers: 29% vs. Millennials: 13% and Gen Z: 20%).

In addition, all respondents agree that technology companies should, and can, be good corporate citizens on their own. 78% of Americans and 77% of Britons believe that companies should take more action to address the consequences of their policies, practices and products to foster trust among consumers.

What’s more, 70% of those questioned say that taking more action would make them more favorable toward technology companies. This is particularly the case for the youngest generation in the US (Gen Z, 78%), but equally as important for younger generations (Gen Z, 74%) and older generations (Gen X, 74%) in the UK.

Despite these still predominantly positive views of technology and technology companies, what’s clear all around the world is that there are ever louder cries for increased regulation, and even calls to break up some of the biggest, most powerful companies in the world.

In fact, our research shows that almost a third of respondents (31%) think that technology companies are regulated too little. This is particularly the case among older generations, primarily the Silent Generation (US 40%, UK 60%) and Boomers (US 38%, UK 45%). What’s more, the research revealed an interesting dynamic when it comes to the UK’s opinions on the regulation of UK and US technology companies. Well over half of Britons (60%) believe that UK technology companies specifically are regulated about the right amount. However, when asked for their opinion on US technology companies, fewer believe that they are regulated the right amount (54%), and significantly more think that they are regulated too little (39%). This indicates that UK consumers see a more relaxed attitude to technology sector regulation in the US compared to the UK.

So there may well be need for new rules and legislation. And yet, many believe that the blazing speed of technological change could leave rule makers – and innovation itself – falling behind.

And whose new rules should be imposed, anyway? Thanks in very large part to the internet, the cloud and wireless networks, technology knows no national boundaries.

It’s also worth remembering that the antidote to antitrust is, well, trust. Technology companies are starting to recognize that their reputations and brand integrity are the best guarantees of long-term success. They know they have a critical role to play in rebuilding trust in technology in a post-truth world.

The best remedy to the so-called techlash will be companies’ internal and external commitments to working with government, regulators, academia, their internal audiences and each other; and to behave in ethical, socially responsible ways. To not only do the most profitable thing for investors, but to do the right thing, on behalf of all stakeholders.