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From Poster Child to Public Enemy – how can tech firms in the UK navigate a converging set of reputational challenges

By Dominic Weeks, Head of Technology

In January, the Economist ran a cover feature looking at how to “tame” the tech titans. The thrust of the article focused on protecting consumers from rampant monopolies and anti-competitive practices, and, of course, erosion of privacy caused by the likes of Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google.

Many mainstream media outlets have also covered big communications platforms/apps’ fractious relationship with government over controlling the spread of terrorist propaganda and plans, fake news and other illicit content that endangers children. The Prime Minister herself, while embroiled in Brexit, has found time to issue multiple warning shots about the issue. The response hasn’t been perfect by any stretch of the imagination. It was reported this week that Facebook had issued a survey asking whose responsibility it was to police child grooming on the site. 

Why not throw in the perception that tech companies are cheating the tax man as well (a suspicion highlighted by a Tory government no less)? Mel Stride MP, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, recently outlined a proposal to tax tech companies’ revenues, rather than the profits they recognize in the U.K.

The spectre on the horizon

All of this is not to mention the biggest spectre on the horizon - no, not spectre the chip security flaw, but rather the impact of Artificial Intelligence and a new wave of automation on employment. Amid increasing inequality and employment frustrations in developed nations, the perception is crystallizing that automation is accelerating to the distinct disadvantage of the average worker whose skills are not seemingly redeployable. To add insult to injury, AI is not only replacing many of our core job functions, it is now also deciding whether you are a fit for a job vacancy.

Jamie Bartlett wrote an excellent piece for the Guardian at the weekend, questioning if 2018 might be the year of the neo-Luddite – raising fears that public disaffection might boil over in to protests and even acts of vandalism and/or violence. The appeal within the article to moderates and even tech enthusiasts to recognise that tech might mean harm as well as good should be an eye opener. It’s not just the pitch fork-waving disenfranchised and displaced worker at the margins that distrusts the motivations of tech companies, it’s increasingly a mainstream, and even tech nerd, concern. That will have ramifications.

Expect increased scrutiny, even amidst Brexit

Yes, amidst the hyperbole there have been moderating voices, but any suspicion that the UK’s need to support the economy post-Brexit will lead to a considerably laxer regulatory framework should be treated with due caution. Public opinion in the UK is skewing towards the technophobic,  and that negative attitude threatens innovation in the form of punitive regulation, dampened uptake of new products and services, and the already emerging talent shortage.

For Britain’s fragile start-up ecosystem this is a concern. How can a bootstrapped tech business, not yet at the point of profitability, differentiate itself from Facebook and Google in the eyes of the public and policymakers? On a smaller budget, how can it navigate the above challenges? The Government needs to create the right conditions for innovation to succeed in the UK but it’s a challenge with young women put off STEM subjects and tech careers, and a general shortage of the appropriate skills, particularly when the industry now has a reputation that might actually be worse than that enjoyed by bankers. 

The industry, across the spectrum, needs to assess how it can tell a more positive story and satisfactorily address many legitimate public concerns. That might be through greater coordination and contributions to industry trade bodies like Tech City UK, but it is also likely about individual firms undertaking more careful and proactive management of corporate reputation on the ground, versus 3,000 miles away in Silicon Valley. It starts with a wake-up call to the parlous state of reputations in the sector at large and an understanding of how this will impact agendas and businesses in the years to come. It will be fascinating to see how tech companies respond – proactively engaging to control their narrative, or falling back on crisis communications when there is trouble at the mill.