The past year has been a thorn in the side of Silicon Valley's biggest names with the term ’techlash’ coined to describe the pushback against major tech companies as trust plummeted in an industry that was once supposed to save the world.
Facebook was hit by a wave of scandals, while Google was slapped with another record antitrust fine over its Android mobile software.
In the Middle East, where technology is a growing sector, both start-ups and businesses are looking to scale.
Edelman general manager Justin Westcott, who also has oversight of the agency's tech division and is head of technology for Europe, Middle East and Africa, says the region has the opportunity to rewrite the narrative and fight back against an industry struggling with its corporate image.
In an exclusive interview with PRWeek Middle East, Westcott discussed trust in technology, the reputation and crisis issues the sector is facing, and how startups could use communications to scale growth and build their story.
"Technology is still a growing sector - especially in the region - and there is a tonne of opportunities - both for start-ups and companies looking to scale up," said Westcott, who has led Edelman UK’s technology practice for years, having joined the agency in 2006, and was key in setting up the MENA branch of Edelman between 2009 and 2013.
Westcott – who was in the region as part of his work with Edelman Emerge, an initiative to help high growth technology brands globally become famous and funded – said in the UAE, in particular, there is "so much potential" for international investment in tech companies.
"I am always blown away in Abu Dhabi and Dubai by start-ups; the craving, ambition and desire," he said.
But with 2018 being remembered as the moment big tech faltered, is there still the same opportunity?
"Absolutely," said Westcott. "The region is still underserved when it comes to top technology that speaks to the region and, especially, the opportunity for Arab-run tech businesses serving an Arab clientele is high.
"Internationally we are seeing a slowdown in funding (for tech)…but in the UAE and the region, it is a place that is compelling for attracting scale-up businesses that is very exciting to see."
But, says Westcott, it will mean companies using communications to bring trust back to a more sceptical consumer.
Westcott points to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, which reveals that trust has changed profoundly in the past year
"(In the Middle East), we are seeing a lot of similar challenges as elsewhere, and our most recent Trust Barometer in tech was really interesting in equal measure of challenges and opportunities," he says.
Despite the techlash, the Trust Barometer revealed tech remains one of the most trusted sectors.
"But some of this tied into consumers' understanding what technology is, whether it’s hardware, devices, cameras, phone - that is the lens they see tech as. When it comes to social media, that is what caused the techlash. It is where the trust (issues) lies.’
"So this is now the moment technology companies need to get on the front foot. A lot of population are seeing innovation for innovation's sake. They are questioning whether technologies are a force for good. People are losing confidence…that is concerning."
Companies need to utilise PR and communication strategies to change the narrative, said Westcott.
"There’s now an opportunity for technology companies to respond more proactively and an expectation technology companies do more around education," he said.
"To help people understand what skills they will need tomorrow; and how technology will bring a positive impact on societies.
"I always believe communication should have a real purpose in it. For communications now there is an opportunity to use one of the most powerful audiences for technologies, the employees themselves. They are a powerful tool and yet an underused audience.
"I think when it comes to start-ups and businesses looking to scale up, communication is, when done well, a really powerful tool and you can see the return on investment. The problem is when companies do not take the time to really understand their own story, and do not figure out a narrative."
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