Report: Consumers say tech companies can do better on privacy and more

A recent survey reveals squishy numbers for tech companies looking to earn consumer trust and loyalty. Experts from AT&T and more share how this impacts the PR industry.

The communications landscape is becoming ever more digital—and rife with potential pitfalls.

A recent FleishmanHillard report about reputation management and technology highlights the struggle to maintain consumers’ trust amid data breaches, privacy concerns on social media platforms, and increased hate speech online.

FleishmanHillard reported that though 82% of consumers in the United States generally trust technology companies, younger consumers are growing increasingly more skeptical: More than a quarter (26%) of Gen Z and 22% of millennials said they have less trust in these companies.

Called “techlash,” this scrutiny and criticism has thrust several social media platforms and other tech companies, such as Uber, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google in the spotlight. Headlines have also circulated questioning how much these companies are regulated.

Though almost 60% of consumers in the United Kingdom think that technology companies are currently regulated the right amount, just over half of U.S. consumers (54%) believe the same about tech companies in the U.S., with 31% saying they should have more regulations.

Some tech companies, such as Facebook, have already spoken out in support of increased regulation.

In March, Facebook founder and chief executive officer, Mark Zuckerberg, wrote in a blog post:

… [T]here’s also an opportunity to build a simpler platform that’s focused on privacy first.

I understand that many people don’t think Facebook can or would even want to build this kind of privacy-focused platform — because frankly we don’t currently have a strong reputation for building privacy protective services, and we’ve historically focused on tools for more open sharing. But we’ve repeatedly shown that we can evolve to build the services that people really want, including in private messaging and stories.

I believe the future of communication will increasingly shift to private, encrypted services where people can be confident what they say to each other stays secure and their messages and content won’t stick around forever. This is the future I hope we will help bring about.

Addressing consumers’ privacy and data collection concerns early and transparently can put you in a better position for engaging with stakeholders. It can also help you more easily respond to future regulations.

“Whether you are a member of the ‘big tech’ fraternity or just a company deploying emerging technologies as part of your business model, it makes no sense to sit back and wait for regulations that may or may not come,” said David Sapid, U.S. advisory risk and regulatory leader for PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Sapid said:

It is imperative for companies to build trust with consumers now as they are developing and deploying technological innovations. The companies that are going to be successful must grow responsibly and innovate responsibly, and most importantly, they need to differentiate how they manage their trust relationship with customers.

Users’ data collection and privacy aren’t consumers’ only area of concern, though.

More than 75% of respondents said that technology companies should take more action to address the consequences of their policies and practices—including the platform or product.

Most recently, YouTube has come under criticism for how it enforces its harassment policy and Twitter has also struggled to define and enforce its user policies as it grapples with free speech concerns amid growing harassment and hate speech.

Resolving these complex issues won’t be easy, especially as social media platforms and other technology companies seek to find solutions that won’t alienate users.

How ‘techlash’ affects your communications

You don’t have to work for a technology company to be affected by consumers’ technology skepticism, either.

For example, more than 80% of consumers say that data protection and security is “very important”—and U.S. consumers said it’s more important than health care and freedom of speech.

As more organizations are affected by data breaches and security leaks, it’s more important than ever before to prepare for a potential crisis well ahead of time. It’s also crucial to relay information and outline a plan for solutions as quickly as possible, following the aftermath of a cybersecurity crisis.

Larry Solomon, chief communications officer at AT&T said:

… People want to do business with brands they can trust with their data. That requires companies be very transparent about their policies, make them easy to understand, give consumers choices on how data is used and above all — keep it secure.

As more organizations harness the data made available by social media platforms and services that gather metrics, it’s also crucial to remember that the numbers correlate with people.

Don’t lose sight of your audience, lest you also lose the important human connection in your content and messaging.

Natasha Kennedy, global managing director of FleishmanHillard’s TRUE Global Intelligence group, said:

Companies are discovering that they can become more empathetic through internal reflection and a commitment to more empathetic leadership, which can filter down into the corporate culture and economic model. Hyatt Hotels is an example of this. The CEO, Mark Hoplamazian, pointed out in a Hotel News interview that by focusing the company’s culture on empathy, care and understanding, it has created a foundation that drives everything else, from Hyatt’s acquisition strategy to its branding strategies and employee training. While Hyatt has a service profit chain model, it is driven by technology (and insightful research) to understand its customers and employees and deliver an authentic and empathetic experience based on that insight.

You can help bolster your reputation—no matter your organization or industry—by making your leaders available to your stakeholders.

Often, this can be accomplished through social media strategies, such as having leaders tweet insights and announcements or by sharing through interviews on LinkedIn.

Whatever channel you use, ensure your leaders’ voices come across loud and clear—and often.

Cam Gordon, head of communications for Twitter Canada, said:

From a reputation perspective, this starts at the executive level. The modern tech leader needs to be present and available to his or her audiences. The media is part of that equation but, increasingly, tech leaders also need to maintain active dialogue with stakeholders at all levels. This includes policymakers, educators, investors and, most importantly, the everyday end user of the products and services being offered.

… It’s the job of communication professionals to ensure that these messages are being transmitted clearly and with regularity. What’s essential is that we don’t just hear these voices when something new is being launched or something established is breaking down. The pulse of the voices should be steady. The tone should be real.

How are you working to increase stakeholder trust as technological innovations—and struggles—abound?

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