Ipsos Corporate Reputation

The Spread of Techlash

How can businesses respond to the reputational challenges of technological change – including privacy, data leaks, advertising practices, and AI
and automation?

Technological backlash doesn’t just affect tech companies; a majority of Reputation Council members across all sectors say that tech issues, particularly around the use of personal data, have become more important to them.
There are three key areas that communicators need to watch out for to protect companies’ reputations: data security, new international regulations and standards, and fake news.
Techlash is no different to the reputational challenges that many other sectors have faced in the past, and traditional communications techniques – understanding different stakeholder perceptions, message testing, horizon scanning, and crisis preparedness – are key to tackling the threat.

If you’re not worried about the impact of techlash on your company, perhaps you should be.

Techlash was defined by the Financial Times as ‘the growing public animosity towards large Silicon Valley platform technology companies and their Chinese equivalents’ when it chose the term as one of the defining words of 2018.

But technology issues are increasingly shaping the reputations of businesses in every sector.

Our own Ipsos research shows that these concerns are key issues for stakeholders, particularly around data privacy, where lack of understanding means groups as diverse as media, consumers and government make assumptions about how their data is being used and misused by companies in practices that aren’t explained.

WHICH, IF ANY, OF THE FOLLOWING ISSUES DO YOU THINK HAVE BECOME MORE IMPORTANT SINCE TECHLASH STARTED?

Council members have plenty of advice for preparing for these issues, but Ipsos says: keep ahead of what stakeholders know (or think they know) about your company.

In 2018, tech companies came under scrutiny again – this time, not because Apple was claimed to be funnelling profits through Dublin, or Samsung phones were exploding, but for reasons much more closely tied to their core business: data use and misuse by tech firms and third parties, ‘fake news’, and the threat of hackers.

of Council members expect data and privacy issues to affect their own companies.

But these issues don’t just affect tech companies any more. Three quarters of Council members say that transparency around data collection and usage has become more important to them since techlash started, and more than half are concerned about ‘fake news’.

The vast majority (86%) of Council members expect these issues to affect their own companies – and those who don’t either don’t require personal data for their business model or are confident that they have prepared enough already to avoid being affected.

There are three particular areas that Council members mentioned when we asked why they expected techlash to affect them.

All companies are data companies now

There are few companies in the world which don’t collect data as part of doing business, whether that’s consumer, supplier or client information. As one Council member put it, “companies will become just as much data companies as they are health companies.” The smart dashboard in your car means that companies like Nissan or General Motors hold much more data on customers than even 20 years ago. Supermarkets can email you when your favourite brand of toilet paper is back in stock.

The more data is collected, the more stakeholders want to know what exactly the company is doing with the data. In the era of smartphones, many of the data connections are transparent but baffling – why does your new gaming app need access to your Facebook data? For some companies, data security is nothing new.

Council members in the banking sector claim that they are ahead of the curve, having had stringent data protection mechanisms in place since before the World Wide Web. Being early adopters has paid off: Ipsos Global Trends data from 2016 shows that more people trust banks with their data than any other type of business. For other companies, it will mean a change in how they think about themselves.

No matter where you work, working in corporate communications means you may soon face questions about what data your company collects and how it is shared and used.

"The big challenge is that the digital world is based on data, while our company is not used to dealing with data. We need to develop competencies and expertise in data management and privacy. Developing new competencies is always a big challenge."
"We will have to review and follow the legislation on private data that has just arrived in Europe. It is necessary to discipline the company, establish rules and criteria to respect these laws. So the impact on the company is difficult, but it does not endanger the life of the company, we just have to adapt the organisation."
Europe regulates the world

2018 was the year that the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) took force – and you could hardly avoid it. Certainly, our Council members around the world felt its force. Communicators working in Europe mention the steps their companies took to become compliant – but in our interconnected world, what happens in Europe has ramifications much further afield. Some Council members from outside the EU say that they have taken GDPR as their starting point, both for dealing with European stakeholders (a legal requirement) and for assumptions about how data protection standards might be rolled out across the world in the future.

We know from our wider research that the general public in the UK are more clued up on GDPR than you might expect.

Its adoption has not yet started to make an impact on how much the public trust the organisations and industry sectors that use our data most frequently and on the largest scale. But communications leaders should expect a more knowledgeable public to ask more questions in the future.

Fake News

The word of the year from 2017 shows no signs of going away in 2019. Communicators must still watch out for the implications of fake news scandals. They can happen in public places (the new town halls of Facebook and Twitter) or in private groups (encrypted services like WhatsApp), and each location requires a radically different response from communicators.

"Nowadays, on social networks, people often build their own fictional world, pretending to do wonderful things that they do not actually do. Conversely, [we have] real incredible stories to tell and, paradoxically, find it difficult to prove that such stories are true."

Council members talk about two of the main threats from fake news.

Lies about their companies can spread like wildfire, and corporate rebuttals don’t have the same virality as the initial stories. One Council member states:

"Power is actually in everyone’s hands. Today a fake news [story], if well crafted, does not have to be made by a large vehicle, and it has a greater destructive potential than anything else."
"You have to understand how you can use this digital world in a healthier way by letting people know that your [communications] are not fake news, they are not untruths. When I run a campaign, I have to have a certain credibility."

All companies have good stories they want to tell, but some Council members fear that the pervading atmosphere of distrust means the public won’t believe them.

We have to remember that cultural context is a force at play here. Massive closed groups, through which false stories can spread, are much more prevalent in developing markets than in developed economies. And Ipsos research in 27 countries shows that the crisis of trust in traditional media sources is more overblown than we might think: it is a problem in established markets, true, but developing markets report an increase in trust in professional media outlets. Whatever your target audience, it’s important to find out where they get their news, and what credibility they put in individual publications – including your company communications.

"Our company must think and operate as if observers were always present, and perfection must be the goal: if consumers observed what we do, they would say that it is perfect. Nobody is perfect, but we strive for continuous improvement."
"At some point people will understand and say: okay, it’s not just in social networks, it’s how companies are using my data, and this will affect other sectors."

Final thoughts

Despite the different forms that technological backlash can take, Council members advise four key ways to keep on top of the story.

The fundamentals of communications haven’t changed. Be clear and transparent, and communicate openly and honestly. Much of the tech-related suspicion facing corporates at the moment stems from a lack of understanding among the public – something that doesn’t just affect technology companies, but all companies which use personal data.

Get ahead of the story. Council members perceive that many tech companies are playing catch up, reacting to stories as they explode, rather than defusing them before they begin. For all companies, regular horizon scanning can help you keep track of issues as they start to emerge. Many of our research programmes among senior publics take this long-term approach, helping our clients understand where they might be in five years’ time as well as what needs to be fixed right now.

Be more joined up. Members observe that changes and uncertainty in the policy or public environment don’t affect any company in isolation. Over the years that we’ve been conducting reputation research for some of the biggest companies in the world, we’ve seen that, rightly or wrongly, sector reputations often rise and fall as one. Even audiences that you hope know better, like senior legislators, often get confused about whether a story they heard involved company A or company B. It’s important to know what issues ‘belong’ to a sector and what ‘belong’ to individual companies from the external perspective. There are areas in all sectors where a united approach can make a bigger difference than individual efforts, even for some of the largest companies in the world.

This is part of growing up. Many Council members are sanguine about the challenges that the tech sector is facing at the moment because they’ve been through it themselves. They view it as a sign of a maturing sector. Perceptions of the tech sector will settle, but it is important for businesses to communicate their viewpoint so that this settlement doesn’t happen without their involvement and isn’t to their detriment.

Methodology: 154 interviews conducted with Reputation Council members between 25th June and 12th November 2018.

Read more from the Reputation Council...

Read more from the Ipsos Corporate Reputation Team...

The AI Paradox: Businesses must not overlook their responsibility to reputation as investment in this technology grows

Digital technologies, from social media to Artificial Intelligence (AI), have undoubtedly altered peoples’ lives – some for the better, some for the worse. We’ve seen the rise of intelligent assistants like Siri and Alexa, grown reliant on communication platforms to keep in touch with friends and family, and have witnessed the positive impact of wearable technology in healthcare.

According to a 2017 PwC report[1], AI technology could deliver a 10% increase in the UK’s GDP by 2030, provided that different types of AI technologies are invested in. To nurture this potential, in early March the government outlined a plan to position the UK as the global leader of artificial intelligence[2]. The plan incorporates investing in R&D, helping people develop skills for the new age of AI, and supporting sectors in boosting their use of AI and data analytics technologies. The hope is to create resilience among the UK’s workforce as the use of AI becomes widespread across sectors and helps boost the economy.

The indication that AI is the future is evident among business leaders too. In a recent study by Ipsos, the authoritative Captains of Industry, three in five stated they have already invested in digital technologies such as machine learning and artificial intelligence. Another third plan to invest in the next five years, as businesses prepare for the utilisation of AI technologies, align with government priorities, and foster the potential for economic growth – especially in a post-pandemic world

However, while the benefits that could be reaped from digital technologies are limitless, it doesn’t come without its challenges. In an Ipsos poll published by the World Economic Forum, four in ten adults across the world said they are worried about the use of artificial intelligence, and nearly half of adults globally agree that the use of AI by companies should be regulated more strictly than it currently is[3]. In another poll, less than one in five adults in the UK believe their job will be automated in the next 10 years, and almost four in five feel confident they already have the skills to carry on with their current employment in the future – contrasting senior leaders’ perspective of digital technologies potential.

While government and businesses are working toward unlocking AI’s potential, efforts will need to be put in place to convince employees of AI’s positive societal impact, the need for upskilling, and the benefits it could bring to jobs in the UK. Uplifting the reputation of AI and automation will need to be at the forefront of the government’s transformational strategy – especially as trust in the sector[4] hit an all-time low in 2020, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer.

Companies such as Microsoft have already taken some steps toward convincing the public in their efforts toward responsible technology by publishing six ethical principles to guide the development and use of artificial intelligence[5], with focus on working closely with employees and teams across the company to enable this effort. The government is also taking steps on this by launching an independent Centre for Data Ethics and Innovation that will advise on the ethical use of data, ranging from evaluating its social and economic impacts through to its fair and responsible application across businesses.

These efforts are a step in the right direction. Digital technologies are notorious for their fast evolution, with policies and regulations coming too late to resolve issues that have already left a negative mark on society and employment. Governments, businesses, and industry experts will need to work coherently and transparently when implementing AI, and work toward foreseeing issues with its implementation before they happen.

Building trust with the public will be key, alongside convincing the UK workforce of the benefits for upskilling, with a focus on fully communicating how utilising digital technologies would affect society and employment, both positively and negatively. Turning the UK into a global AI leader will be a challenging endeavour, but as long as we remember that having the capability to create technology is not all it takes for its success, realising all of its social and economic benefits are very much within our grasp.

Article links

[1] https://www.pwc.co.uk/economic-services/assets/ai-uk-report-v2.pdf

[2] https://www.gov.uk/government/news/new-strategy-to-unleash-the-transformational-power-of-artificial-intelligence

[3] https://www.ipsos.com/en-us/wef-artificial-intelligence-press-release

[4] https://www.linkedin.com/news/story/were-losing-our-trust-in-tech-5042340/

[5] https://www.microsoft.com/en-us/ai/responsible-ai?activetab=pivot1:primaryr6

For more information please contact:

Nadya Valkova
Research Manager, Corporate Reputation

Nadya.Valkova@Ipsos.com

What drives judgement of an organisation’s reputation?

An important focus for Ipsos Corporate Reputation is to help our clients understand what drives their reputation, in other words, what are the issues stakeholders think about when they make judgments about companies and organisations. In this article we will show what are the key aspects organisations should be mindful of according to MPs and business journalists who we regularly interview.

What exactly drives reputation will vary from one organisation to another – there isn’t a single, off-the-shelf answer to this. Feeding into an organisation’s reputation will be elements of what it does (for example, product quality and innovation), what it stands for (such as business acumen, ethics, corporate social responsibility and ESG performance), expectations and perceptions of the sector it’s in, expectations of business and industry, and other wider context issues. Furthermore, an organisation’s delivery against its corporate promise needs to match or exceed the expectations it creates.

There will be many tangible benefits that an organisation gets from building reputation value. It will, for example, help ensure your point of view is heard in policy making and regulation, make stakeholders more receptive to communications, build resilience to draw upon during times of crisis, and strengthen your employer brand.

Factors shaping reputation will vary from company to company, as reputation isn’t formed in a vacuum. It is shaped by perceptions of the sector, by the ongoing socioeconomic climate and policy agenda, as well as the behaviour, performance and communications effectiveness of a company. However, MPs and journalists have told us which issues they tend to consider when they from opinions about companies and organisations, which we’ll discuss here.

The most common consideration for business journalists when judging an organisation tends to be its financial performance. Often, this is seen to be a hygiene factor which an organisation needs before it can start to credibly engage with other issues. As one national business journalist states;

“If you haven't got that [financial performance] you can't do anything else. If you're not a viable business nothing else really matters. You can be as nice as you like to everyone else but if you're going to go bust, there's no point.”

Other common considerations today among business journalists include quality of management, treatment of customers, treatment of employees, and how it engages with journalists.

Journalists tell us that there are three key benefits for an organisation from engaging well with them; it allows journalists to get an organisation’s message across in the pieces they write, it could position an organisation in a more favourable light, and it helps journalist to report more accurately and less one-sided. As a regional business journalist explains;

“You're never going to stop bad headlines if things go badly but engagement on a number of specific issues such as remuneration, climate change, you know if I have a full understanding of a company's policy and why it's doing something, I'm much less likely to shot from the hip. If I have a full understanding of that company's strategy and why something has happened, I'm probably going to have a more holistic, a fuller appreciation of what that is rather than just writing "This is a bloody disaster"”

Indeed, between 2015 and 2017 we saw that engagement with journalists rose in importance as an important factor (see illustration below), and it has maintained its importance ever since. It’s also interesting to note how treatment of employees has become an increasingly important factor for journalists; as Covid-19 lockdown restrictions start to ease and companies announce their plans for their employees (a return to office working or a continuation of remote, flexible or hybrid working), companies need to be mindful of how their demands of employees might be perceived and how this might impact on their reputations.

Meanwhile, the factors that MPs most commonly consider when judging organisations are treatment of employees, track record, financial performance, social responsibility and environmental responsibility.

When asked to rate each aspect in terms of importance, treatment of employees has over time continuously been rated as an important attribute by MPs, while social and environmental responsibility is becoming increasingly important:

However, which aspects are of most importance does to some extent depend on which side of the House an MP sits on.

For Conservative MPs, a company’s track record and financial performance are the key considerations – and financial performance is far more commonly mentioned by Conservative MPs than Labour MPs. As one Conservative Backbencher states;

“Longevity is important, successful track record in either financial terms or stuff they sell or market. The reality is you don't really know about their CSR. The brand reputation is hugely important.”

Meanwhile, the key aspect for Labour MPs is treatment of employees (a far greater consideration among Labour MPs than Conservatives), followed by social responsibility. As one Labour Shadow Minister sates, the way a company treats their employees can be seen to be a reflection of the wider ethos of a company;

“First and foremost, in terms of the management and the whole ethos, the way they treat their employees… how employees are treated is very important to me, are they on proper contracts, are they paid properly, do they have security of employment, do they have things like pensions.”

In line with the views of Labour MPs, our most recent wave of the Reputation Council showed that corporate communicators commonly view employees as a stakeholder group which is increasingly influential on company reputations (legislators, such as MPs, are also seen to be increasingly influential by corporate communicators). Employees are no longer an afterthought for corporate communicators and are increasingly treated “much more seriously as a sophisticated stakeholder audience” and a trusted and credible source of information about a company.

Once organisations understand how key stakeholders form their opinions of them and their competitors, and how they perform against these criteria, they can then put plans in place to target communications more effectively – as well as identifying how (and if) an organisation needs to ‘course correct’ to deliver against stakeholder expectations. In terms of planning a communications strategy, further insight on how best to engage with MPs can be found in our recent post: Creating relevant and engaging comms with MPs for effective corporate planning.

Ipsos MORI can help you better understand what drives opinions about your organisation among various stakeholder groups, and the steps you need to take to bolster the way you are perceived to perform on those key attributes. We provide tailored advice through bespoke research and/or through our syndicated stakeholder surveys among legislators, journalists, business leaders and investors.

Want to know more about our MPs and Business Journalists syndicated surveys (or our wider bespoke surveys)? Get in touch with Ipsos MORI….

For more information please contact:

Guto Hunkin
Associate Director, Corporate Reputation

Guto.Hunkin@Ipsos.com