For over a decade, researchers at public relations firm Edelman have measured how much the general public trusts various industries. The technology sector has earned the title of "most-trusted profession" on the Edelman Trust Barometer survey every year since its inception.
The streak concerns some technology pundits, who worry that the industry can only go down from here. However, the fact that more than three in four global consumers say they trust technology companies should force you to think about how you're building a strong center of ethics into every facet of your career.
Avoiding the industry-wide collapse
According to Edelman spokesperson Grant Thomas, the technology sector's youth prevents it from carrying the baggage of older, established industries. For instance, the financial crises of the 1920s, 1980s, and 2000s all tainted consumers' perceptions of Wall Street. Reports of drug-induced birth defects and product tampering soured the public's opinion of the pharmaceutical industry. Energy suppliers still wrestle with questions about the Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima nuclear disasters.
By comparison, the technology industry's biggest disasters haven't caused human deaths or widespread suffering. America Online's unprecedented downtime made the nightly news in 1996, but only affected a relatively small percentage of Americans. Apple's map generator, made the default navigation software in iOS 6, may have stranded a handful of tourists in an Australian national park. However, outside a few isolated incidents, the situation mostly provided comedy fodder for tech bloggers before system upgrades rectified the worst problems.
Maintaining technology's winning streak
In an interview with Mashable, Edelman spokesperson Ben Boyd noted that the tech industry experiences a halo effect by anticipating and solving problems for so many end users. Even when companies make major mistakes, consumers assume positive intent from companies like Google, which at one time adopted the informal internal motto, "Don't be evil."
Google's lawyers interpret "Don't be evil" as a 19-page Code of Conduct that most consumers will never read. Researchers at the Electronic Frontier Foundation point out that even a comprehensive code of conduct doesn't always protect the privacy or the best interests of Google's customers. Since 2005, the online advocacy group has warned consumers that End User License Agreements (EULAs) and codes of conduct often contain language that forces customers to either accept terms of service or opt out of such service altogether.
Looking beyond the technology silo
When Google, Facebook, or Apple kill off popular features of their products, technology journalists and early adopters flood the blogosphere with complaints. Yet, according to Edelman's statistics, consumers still keep signing up for accounts and purchasing new products. Edelman spokesman Pete Pedersen told Canada's Global News that our heavy reliance on technical products forces us to put more faith in Silicon Valley than we would in Wall Street or Detroit. Technology companies rely on each other for parts, data interfaces, and network interoperability, Pedersen says, making it harder to hide the kinds of scandals and failures that wreaked havoc in the worlds of finance and auto manufacturing.
Even though we often think of corporations as faceless entities, they really function at the whims of individuals. According to Edelman's research, the most successful technology companies hire socially conscious employees. "Marrying profit with purpose" can drive a company's trust score higher, but only when employees operate with enough confidence and transparency to share both their successes and their shortcomings with customers. The public no longer wants to hear from just a company's CEO or PR department, either.
Building industry-wide trust by growing your personal brand
Fortunately, many of the skills that can make you an attractive hiring candidate can also help you become one of the most-trusted professionals in your niche:
- Build an authoritative social media presence. Establishing yourself as a thought leader on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter can build professional credibility that you can bring to an employer. Using a personal blog as a hub for your professional activities lets customers and journalists connect with you even if you change jobs.
- Develop a reputation for sharing facts instead of spin. When posting to your blog or to social media services, back up your assertions with links to hard data or other evidence. The academic nature of the technology industry rewards research over unchallenged opinions.
- Learn how to communicate clearly, instead of in marketing speak. Unless you want technology bloggers like John Gruber to pick apart your posts, use language that gets to the point and offers clear guidance to your customers.
Following those three steps can help you build professional connections, along with a reputation of bringing social consciousness to the organizations where you work. Google's Matt Cutts, Rackspace's Robert Scoble, and Edelman's own Steve Rubel all provide examples of personal blogs that enhance the professional reputations of their employers. Winning over the skeptical tech community bodes well for establishing trust with broader consumer audiences, especially in a world where we increasingly make up our own minds about the companies we choose to work with.
"Apple Maps fail almost deadly for several in Australia," Slate V Staff, Slate, 2012, http://www.slate.com/blogs/trending/2012/12/10/apple_maps_deadly_australian_police_warn_of_faulty_directions.html
"A brief history of internet outages," Harry McCracken, Technologizer, 2008, http://technologizer.com/2008/08/11/eight-great-internet-outages/
"Code of Conduct," Google, 2012, http://investor.google.com/corporate/code-of-conduct.html
"Dangerous terms: a user's guide to EULAs," Annalee Newlitz, Electronic Frontier Foundation, 2005, https://www.eff.org/wp/dangerous-terms-users-guide-eulas
"Maintaining technology's trust equity," Grant Thomas, Edelman, 2012, http://trust.edelman.com/maintaining-technologys-trust-equity/
"Technology industry ranked most trustworthy: study," Global News, 2013, http://globalnews.ca/news/382455/technology-industry-ranked-most-trustworthy-study/
"Technology ranks world's most-trusted industry in 2013," Zoe Fox, Mashable, 2013, http://mashable.com/2013/01/22/technology-edelman-trust-barometer/