What Google’s Trending User Surveillance Says About Brand Reputation

Another day, another story about Google helping manifest the dystopian nightmare of a surveillance-happy security state.

This past Saturday, the New York Times published a story detailing how Google shares its location-tracking database with police. Law enforcement uses the data to identify suspects whose devices were within the vicinity of a crime. Sometimes the police use the data incorrectly, using it to build a case against the wrong person(s).

"The warrants, which draw on an enormous Google database employees called Sensorvault, turn the business of tracking cellphone users' locations into a digital dragnet for law enforcement," the Times wrote. At a time when a big tech is under a cloud for what it's gathered about you in the cloud, the Google story "is just the latest example of how personal information—where you go, who your friends are, what you read, eat and watch, and when you do it—is being used for purposes many people never expected."

These warrants go further than ever in "suggesting possible suspects and witnesses in the absence of other clues," the story adds. Google meets this accusation with a pat, sanitized statement about how it supports user privacy and law enforcement. It fails to explain how that boundary is maintained.

Hence, Google's unwillingness to acknowledge its reputation for surveillance over user protection offers choice lessons for smaller organizations about recognizing negative trends brewing around your brand.

Learn what makes a reputational trend, and how to avoid it

One way journalists determine whether a story has 'news value' is whether or not it constitutes a trend. In this context, three or more examples of the same thing happening make a trend. In the case of Google's big data feeding into military-industrial complexes at home and abroad, there are far more than three examples.

Google employees exposed one of the juiciest last year. Staffers published a memo about working on a censored search engine for China, codenamed "Project Dragonfly." If launched, the project would "blacklist sensitive queries" and link searches to the searcher's phone number.

Such stories add up to a documented trend of surveillance at Google. Yet the brand hasn't addressed this subject specifically. It's used smoke and mirrors—Google thinks that by ignoring the issue, it will go away. It's not.

No matter the size of your organization, communicators can reduce the chance that their brand's reputation will trend negatively. Preventative options include social listening to measure brand sentiment. Such an effort would modify external messaging only when pre-determined thresholds of negative sentiment are crossed.

Even if a negative light was cast on your brand once, it's time to adopt a company-wide crisis communications strategy.  Perform departmental audits and hold cascade meetings to ensure every employee is on the same page around communicating brand values, voice and messaging. This will help reduce discrepancy between what's being said and what's actually being done from showing. No level of secrecy can guarantee that something won't leak out eventually.

Defying a negative trend can be great PR

Distancing your brand from a trend that has befallen your sector isn't just a safeguard—it's an opportunity to define your contrasting values. This is a strategy that Apple, which famously defied FBI orders to unlock the phone of a shooter—understands. It's at the core of Apple's DNA (pun intended):

Over the last few decades, Apple has mastered the art of cooly nodding to negative trends, distinguishing itself and keeping its hands clean simultaneously. It comes back to brand reputation—customers want to know that you're not deaf, dumb and blind to what's going on in your industry. When customers know your brand is aware of societal concerns, it builds trust.

In contrast to Google—which can use software to require your iPhone be handed over to police, anyway—Apple has shown that sometimes all it takes to be the good guy is to wait for a competitor to look bad; then show the world why your brand values are different.