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Technology’s Achilles’ Heel

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As my colleague Pete Pedersen, global chair of Edelman’s Technology practice, recently blogged, the technology industry is the most trusted sector according to Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer. The societal benefit of the innovations these companies bring is enormous with little negative externalities.

When looking at the sector’s practices through the lens of the 16 attributes that the Trust Barometer research found to be most important for building trust, the technology industry certainly deserves high marks. For one, a major driver of trust is the ability to have a positive benefit on society, which in many ways the technology sector is again designed to deliver. The products it produces are most often platforms and infrastructure that can be leveraged for any variety of beneficial purposes. For academics, NGOs or even kids in their basement, these technologies give them the tools they need to change the world. For instance, mobility has made it easier for us to connect with those we care about and the ability to access information about almost anything at a moment’s notice has made our lives better. The ability to leverage supercomputers in the cloud makes scientists more effective in analyzing all sorts of data.

At the same time, we know trust is fragile and the same platforms also have a potential Achilles’ Heel: data security and privacy. With the rise of cloud computing, mobility and nearly universal connectivity in many markets, more data about each and every one of us is being collected, shared and analyzed like never before. This data is absolutely essential for the digital economy to grow, which makes it absolutely essential that people and businesses trust that their personal information is being treated correctly by tech companies.

Yet, it seems like not a week goes by that we don’t see a major technology company in the news because of a privacy or security missteps: from social networks receiving significant outcry from customers over changes to privacy policies to backlash from regulators in the U.S. and Europe about the general lack of transparency and control consumers have over how people are tracked across the web. We are quickly reaching a tipping point where these issues could lead to a loss of trust for the sector if companies are not more transparent about their practices and take this issue more seriously.

Our research supports this imperative. The Edelman Trust Barometer found transparent and open business practices to be a key attribute for trust ahead of financial results and highly regarded leadership. We also know that businesses in every sector are struggling to be transparent about their practices. According to the Edelman Privacy Risk Index, developed by the Ponemon Institute, 57 percent of privacy leaders surveyed indicated their organization is not transparent about what they do with personal information.

So what’s a responsible company to do if they want to build trust?

First and foremost, they must consider privacy and security as more than a compliance or technical need and make it a communications imperative. Communicators within organizations must have a seat at the table to help make decisions about data handling practices based on the potential for backlash or reputation loss. They also need to determine how the organization communicates their privacy commitment and identify when a data handling practice could potentially raise issues with consumers, media or policymakers.

Further, companies in the sector need to rethink how they engage key stakeholders on privacy and security issues. Most tend to take a head in the sand approach or think that having a privacy policy will inoculate them from criticism. Unfortunately, the legalese-laden, privacy policy often confuses more than clarifies and does not deliver messages that demonstrate trust. Instead much like with sustainability, companies should develop a narrative that communicates the company is committed to managing these issues.

Finally, security breaches are now widespread and companies are now judged by how well they handle an incident more than they are judged by the incident itself. With the many recent high profile incidents, there is no excuse for not being prepared to communicate about a breach. Communicators must work with IT and legal departments to have an integrated plan for leading with breaches.

While no company or industry can ultimately “solve” security and privacy, I am confident that most companies in the technology sector will recognize the importance of the issue. Those who are first able to figure out how to make privacy and security a benefit to their business are likely to gain trust while the others that act too slowly are at risk of losing it.

Leigh Nakanishi is a senior account supervisor in the Technology practice.

Image by Ed Yourdon.

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