Research and insights

Controversy can pull large audiences, but for tech brands, credibility is still king

Written by Laurence Sherrington-Roberts

26 November 2020


Along with our sister agency, Arlington Research, we set out to explore whether our definitions of credibility, a fundamental resource in PR, have drastically changed as a result of the tumultuous ‘post-truth era’. To do this, we surveyed a representative sample of 6,000 adults in the US, UK and Germany, to understand how well they know the world’s key figureheads and large organisations, and to what extent they believe they are credible. Here’s what we found.

For politicians, communications experts and laymen alike, the past decade has left many scratching their heads. Referendums that seemed set in stone stunned pollsters, reality-TV show hosts garnered almost cult-like political appeal, and conspiracy theories surrounding 5G and vaccinations spread through the public like wildfire.

The culprit? The ‘post-truth’ era; an age which is now seeing established brands and politicians at constant odds with these conspiracy theories, sensationalist claims, and most importantly, the erratic power of social media.

Surprisingly, however, the results of our research seemed to suggest that our general attitudes towards credibility are yet to be turned on their head.  As one would cautiously expect, politicians with a lower profile but a more ‘statesman/woman’-like image, such as Angela Merkel, Justin Trudeau and Jacinda Arden, scored significantly higher on global credibility scores than the break out populist figureheads such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson and Vladimir Putin.

So much so in fact, that all three of the above-mentioned populists were the only leaders to score negative global credibility scores, in our survey. Boris Johnson secured the best result out of the three with a score of -17, which was dwarfed by Donald Trump at -41, and Vladimir Putin at -43. To put that into perspective, Angela Merkel scored 24, and Arden and Trudeau both scored 13.

Interestingly, the populists were by far the most well-known names to participants of the survey. This would seem to indicate that, despite their uncanny ability to absorb scrutiny and enthral an unwavering base, political ‘mavericks’ like Trump and Putin embrace controversy as a way to build and maintain their far-reaching (and surprisingly dynamic) platforms. It remains, however, that controversy, even in these peculiar times, breeds suspicion.

The spotlight is not always your friend

For any tech brand, the strategies applied by these populists are far from viable. In fact, they act as a warning.  When we replicated our credibility gauge for a number of major tech organisations, there was only one CEO and brand that scored negatively; Mark Zuckerberg (-5) and Facebook (-7).

As the most well-known and least trusted figure in a list that included Tesla’s Elon Musk (12), Apple’s Tim Cook (10), Microsoft’s Satya Nadella (5), Amazon’s Jeff Bezos (6) and Alphabet’s Sundar Pichai (4), Zuckerberg’s public perception reflects a story that PR experts are all too familiar with – the spotlight is not always your friend.

For Zuckerberg, the spotlight hasn’t come with populist perks which Johnson, Trump and Putin use to their advantage. Instead, as a brand that is entrusted with immeasurable amounts of user data and social influence, controversy and notoriety are recipes for disaster.

After the 2018 Cambridge Analytica scandal, which saw divisive political campaigns illegally harvest the personal data of millions of Facebook users, alarming numbers of users began abandoning a site which was otherwise becoming a staple of their everyday lives.

This global loss of trust resulted in Facebook stocks plummeting, with many calculating that the brand lost up to $190 billion in market value….in one day.

What does this all mean for tech brands and PRs alike?

As a brand, it can be tempting to want to take the bull by the horns and thrust your brand into the spotlight at even the remotest of opportunities. For PRs, it can also be all too tempting to oblige. However, with heightened media awareness comes heightened media scrutiny.

What our research suggests is that credibility is still an incredibly valuable but volatile resource when building public image. While dominating the discussion has provided short term benefits to those looking to mobilise large numbers of people, trust remains the ultimate goal for those looking to maintain universal appeal.

Now, more than ever, it is important to streamline your messaging, understand your goals and think proactively in terms of a potential PR crisis – especially when you have a large platform.

*To calculate the Credibility Score, we asked 6,000 participants how credible each organisation/figure was on a scale of 1-10 (1 being not credible at all and 10 being very credible.). Of those, we subtracted the percentage of those Believed Not Credible from the percentage of Believed Credible to give us the final Credibility Score.