The 2015 Edelman Trust Barometer found that for the first time, trust in technology declined in three quarters of the 27 nations surveyed. It was not a huge drop but a consistent decline across the markets of four to five points, down to the high 60s or low 70s, making the sector still the most trusted. We attributed the decline to privacy and security issues, from hackers penetrating banks and retailers, to the Snowden revelations. Note that this morning, technology leaders, such as Apple CEO Tim Cook, joined President Barack Obama at Stanford University to discuss these issues.
But beyond the sector trust decline, we found a disturbing new concern about the pace of innovation. By a two-to-one margin, respondents felt that change was happening too quickly, that they wanted (by a four- or five-to-one margin) to have more government regulation but most believed that government was unable to keep up. By a three-to-one margin, respondents said that greed or business profit was the motive for innovation over such worthy goals as improving my life or betterment of society.
So I went to Silicon Valley, the belly of the beast, to ask those at the top of the technology food chain about their reaction to the findings.
Last night in San Francisco, Adam Lashinsky, senior editor at Fortune, who has covered many of the huge success stories in Silicon Valley, opened our panel discussion on trust with a strong statement. Paraphrasing Adam, “The tech entrepreneur does not believe in the usual constraints. If he or she did, the disruptive idea would never happen.”
The day before, I had lunch with Marc Andreessen, who runs Andreessen Horowitz, a vibrant venture capital firm. His analysis of the long-cycle shift is a move from a 20th century model of command and control expressed in big companies, hierarchy and institutional power to a 21st century model of networks with distributed power, collective action, decentralized authority, low institutional trust and entrepreneur driven progress. He went on to ask the question of whether a start-up should spend its time being stronger or nicer. He came down on the side of doing both, especially because of the need to recruit the top talent in the Valley who want to work with a company that is changing the world. He also noted the power of public relations, because a good story in the media will do the most to attract and retain the best people.
Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the long-established VC firm, said that the consumer is now in charge based on the power of feedback. “There is huge power in feedback, whether on Yelp or Uber. And it has spread to other areas like home repairs and house cleaning through apps like Handy.”
Ann Winblad of Hummer Winblad Venture Partners, at a dinner on trust in Silicon Valley, asserted that those who had made significant money recently in technology have deep interest in philanthropy. She has counselled those fortunate 80 souls who benefited from the sale of WhatsApp on where to place their charitable dollars.
Ann Lewnes, SVP and CMO of Adobe (disclosure: Edelman client), talked about two important programs that have been initiated by her company to give back to customers and community. “We have a creative community called Behance with five million members, a marketplace in which to find talent and share ideas or best work. We also sponsor Adobe Youth Voices, giving our software to kids who are creating for a purpose.”
Susie White, CMO of Tilt, a three-year-old venture backed firm that was started to help non-profits raise money, or in her words “social commerce,” was enthusiastic about the potential for collective action through her platform. “Dick’s Sporting Goods offered a Tilt to raise money for school sports programs. Two million dollars was raised via the platform which was matched by the company. There is real power in tagging your friends on Facebook, in emails and text messages.”
I believe that the leaders in the sector now understand the importance of doing more than doing business. They are the bellwether of trust in business because they are growing, globalizing and changing how we live and work. The CEOs and heads of venture firms need to listen to criticism and concerns about privacy. They also must be good citizens of their communities, as Google has learned in San Francisco, where the company now sponsors not just its own bus service to the Valley but underwrites transport for lower income neighborhoods. I come away from my two-day visit confident in the pivot of the tech sector towards fulfilling its manifest destiny as the most decent not just the most successful business community.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.
Image by Elliott Burr.