Contribute, contract; endorse? Technology reputations

Technology companies need to be careful about who and what they're seen to support. Lie down with dogs, goes the saying, and you'll get up with fleas.
Written by Simon Bisson, Contributor and  Mary Branscombe, Contributor

Technology companies need to be careful about who and what they're seen to support. Lie down with dogs, goes the saying, and you'll get up with fleas. From SOPA to CISPA to campaigners who oppose gay marriage, disapprove of women in the workplace or associate climate change scientists with terrorists, technology companies have had some strange bedfellows recently.

Backing SOPA lost Go Daddy more customers than putting scantily clad women in its adverts or shooting animals on safari. Technology companies that approved of the few sensible security parts of CISPA but didn't speak out against the more intrusive aspects found themselves pilloried for it. There's a petition going around condemning Microsoft, Pfizer and other companies that support the Heartland Institute, which campaigners at SumofUs say planned a series of ads using the face of the Unabomber to cast doubt on climate change (the implication being if someone as nutty as that believes in climate change, do you want to?). Planned billboard ads were cancelled but the ad went on the Heartland Web site. General Motors and Diageo have already pulled their funding and one research group at the institute has left because of the ad.

Last month, Dell had an event in Denmark where CEO Michael Dell was followed on stage by Mads Christensen, a Danish comedian who had his audience laughing by suggesting that women don't belong in technology and haven't invented anything more significant than the rolling pin, which is blatant sexism or biting satire depending on where you stand. Now you often get bad comedians at technology events (Dana Carver trying to be funny at an Oracle conference by repeating the name 'Safra Catz' ad nauseam was one of the most squirm-inducing things I've ever seen), but putting that kind of comedy on stage right after Michael Dell? Bad decision and - if it gets noticed outside Denmark - bad publicity. Dell has offered something that doesn't really count as an apology, followed by a clearer apology buried on Google+. (For the record 'I'm sorry people were offended" isn't an apology. "I'm sorry we were offensive" is an apology; 'I'm sorry people were offended' is closer to 'it's not our fault you can't take a joke".)

SOPA support, failed satire, strange adverts that offend people. None of these issues are about technology per se or about the products that technology companies produce, any more than whether wearing a hoodie makes Zuckerberg a bad CEO (did wearing jeans make Steve Jobs a bad CEO?). Corporate philanthropy is a good thing (and there's nothing wrong with corporate entertainment), and it would be a shame if companies only stuck to safe bets because sometimes the unpopular opinion is the truth. And of course, edgy campaigns are the ones that get noticed.

But the reputation of technology companies matters immensely and not just because we care so much about brands. If you make a stupid decision about funding an organisation or hiring an entertainer that has nothing to do with technology, do people trust you to make good decisions in the products you build?

I often accuse Google of being tone deaf on privacy and the parts of social networking that are about people rather than algorithms. Funding organisations that deny climate change, hiring offensive comedians for high profile events; those are pretty tone deaf acts as well and 'we didn't realise' isn't impressive as an excuse because it's somebody's job to know.

Technology companies have had to learn to play the political game and lobby governments. They also need to pay more attention to their reputations by thinking a lot harder about where their money goes. Responsible corporate citizenship should catch more of these issues before a petition or a blog post puts the news on Facebook and Twitter, so we can stay more interested in the company's technology than its bad decisions.

Mary Branscombe

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