Democrats and Republicans hardly agree on anything these days. But one thing they share is a growing distrust of Big Tech.
Big Tech — a group of companies that typically includes the "Big Five" of Google, Amazon, Facebook, Apple and Microsoft — is under fire from conservatives for perceived liberal bias, and from liberals for allegedly using their dominant market positions to stifle competition. The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against Google, and the Federal Trade Commission against Facebook in separate antitrust cases. Those cases, as well as investigations of Amazon and Apple, have picked up steam in recent months.
Public support for Big Tech has declined as trust has eroded. Recent studies show that the majority of Americans think the Big Five are spying on them, using their personal data carelessly, and having more power than they should.
This loss of trust represents an unprecedented PR crisis for Big Tech. But the problem doesn’t stop there. Increasingly, companies across the tech sector — large and small — are facing a reputation management challenge with consumers.
The 2021 Edelman Trust Barometer, an annual survey conducted by the global PR firm Edelman for more than two decades, shows this clearly. While technology has long been the most trusted industry sector, trust has plummeted over the past 10 years by more than any other sector.
In 2012, a full 77% of survey respondents expressed trust in tech companies to “do what is right.” In the new research, that percentage has dropped to 68%. This percentage decline is three times that of any other industry in the study.
This means that tech companies of all sizes have an opportunity — and a responsibility — to help their sector earn back lost trust.
So what can tech companies of all sizes do to ensure strong relationships with their customers, prospects and the public? Here are four steps you can take:
1. Put your customers first.
Tech companies have long been the heroes of the U.S. economy. What tarnished the halo? Too many CEOs started thinking of consumers as data repositories rather than living, breathing humans. You’ll never be able to maintain trust with your customers with that mentality. If what your business is planning to do is not something your customers would want you to do, don’t do it.
2. Admit your mistakes.
This is a hard one for a lot of people, isn’t it? But few things go further in building a reputation of trustworthiness than conceding your screw-ups. Did you have an outage? Suffer a breach? Release a buggy product? Yes, I know — your lawyers don’t want you to get sued by saying the wrong thing. But by working with a good PR person, you can learn to speak the truth without leading with your chin. Someone who did this extremely well in 2020 was Eric Yuan, the CEO of Zoom. With the massive uptick in Zoom usage because of COVID, numerous security issues with the product were exposed. Rather than deflect blame, Yuan took responsibility and announced that all of Zoom’s R&D in the coming months would be devoted to security improvements.
3. Don’t just respond to crises; anticipate them.
It’s great to have a post-mortem after a crisis has passed, but it’s even better to conduct a “pre-mortem” to anticipate problems before they occur. Whenever you set out on a major project, work with your team to identify worst-case scenarios and brainstorm ways to prevent those scenarios from becoming real communications crises. It sounds intuitive, but the truth is that many companies don’t take this simple step before launching into new ventures.
4. Demonstrate your values freely.
If your customers know you mean well, it’s much easier for them to forgive you and maintain trust after you make a mistake. You can build up this goodwill by being responsive, providing great service and making amends when you make a mistake. You can also establish a stronger relationship with the public at large by taking an active part in your community and the causes your customers believe in. Build your brand around a larger social purpose. But don’t brag about things you plan to do. Show your values through your actions — not your words.
Put another way, empathy, humility, transparency and kindness go a long way to building trust — and to maintaining trust even when things don’t go as planned.
A version of this story originally appeared on Forbes.com.
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