Why the technology sector must stay alert in 2021

By Matthew Rudman, Account Director, Technology 

We’re coming to the end of a difficult year, and looking at the news, you might be thinking you can afford to relax a little in 2021. You’d be wrong.

In recent weeks positive news around COVID-19 vaccine trials sent stock markets soaring, while emerging clarity in the outcome of the US elections has put an end to months of uncertainty. The year ahead may at least present fewer, less urgent problems for the global tech sector, and even hints of recovery. According to a FleishmanHillard Fishburn poll, 61% of B2B buyers said that COVID-19 has opened new opportunities for their business that were not previously considered, prompting them to actively look for new products and services.

But the big picture is more complicated. Many of the challenges technology companies faced this year – regulation, public trust, diversity & inclusion – have been long in the making, and will still be here come January.

Virtual-first year puts tech in the spotlight

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a step-change in public perceptions of the technology sector.

Technology products and services have allowed us to have some level of normality and productivity in daily life. Uptake of communications technologies, online shopping and home entertainment have accelerated, often making household names of brands that were previously struggling to break through to the mainstream.

Some are saying this shift is making some of the biggest digital technology providers seem more like public utilities than private companies – and prompting conversation that they should be regulated as such.

At FleishmanHillard we researched this issue in our Techlash 2020 report, finding that around one-third of consumers in the UK, Europe and the US think that technology companies are regulated too little. What’s more, when asked whether they trust technology companies, 62% of respondents said “somewhat” or “not very much”.

Hardly a resounding endorsement. These reputational issues are deep-seated, unlikely to be transformed overnight by the occupant of the White House or a change in the trajectory of the pandemic.

Challenges ahead for Big Tech

The technology sector should expect the prospect of tough new legislation, regulation and fines to continue into 2021. Content moderation, political bias, anti-competitive practices and tax avoidance will continue to be hot-button issues as administrations around the world – from China to the EU to the incoming Biden administration – look to check the power of the very largest technology platforms.

And there’s evidence to suggest the public agrees with them: according to FleishmanHillard research, a majority of consumers globally (59%) agree that technology companies need to act to address the consequences of their policies, practices and products, and do right by consumers to build trust.

The technology sector’s historically poor record on diversity, equity and inclusion will also require much more work in 2021, after a year in which racial and social injustice in the US and beyond rightly took centre stage in the national conversation.

Finding opportunity in a changing media landscape

It’s often the very largest technology companies that face the highest levels of scrutiny across these issues, but the wider sector needs to stay alert too. What’s happening in the world of Big Tech sets the tone for the whole industry, often shaping the questions put to spokespeople by click-hungry journalists seeking to put their reporting into a wider context.

2021 will present no quick wins for traditional media either: the ecosystem is in a fight for survival against the pandemic, with layoffs reported across a wide gamut of outlets. Against this backdrop, understanding how the media landscape is changing on a month-by-month, sometimes even day-by-day basis is hugely important.

While this may sound like doom and gloom, there are opportunities out there for technology brands looking to use communications to drive their business’ post-pandemic recovery and growth. Our research suggests traditional media continues to a be key role in the B2B purchase process.

Don’t be lulled into a false sense of security: when so much is changing, it pays to be one step ahead when planning for the year ahead. In turbulent times, a quality communications programme remains a worthwhile investment. Understanding the conversation, and ensuring that your messages are resonating in the right way with your audiences, has never been more essential.