What Silicon Valley did right: Rebuilding trust after a crisis

By Philip Garrity 
The Brief 
When a breach of trust occurs between your brand and your audience, how you react in the immediate aftermath of the crisis will determine whether or not you can salvage your relationships.

When Edward Snowden disclosed to The Guardian in June that the National Security Agency had essentially turned the Internet into its own intelligence-gathering playground, the NSA had some, er, explaining to do. 

The revelation sent shockwaves through the hearts of civil libertarians and foreign chancelleries the world over, and through Silicon Valley’s tech companies and their employees, not to mention idealistic, internet-trawling college students everywhere. What existed to intercept enemy communications had in one news cycle become the adversary of web-righteous techies everywhere. Gone, as Business Insider pointed out recently, was the admiration of these potential future NSA employees, and gone was the cooperation of giant Internet technology companies who treasure Internet freedom. The NSA’s “trust capital,” if you will, had vanished.

Rebuilding relationship capital

When a breach of trust occurs, it wreaks havoc on your relationships with clients, peers and potential hires. That’s because trust is the most fundamental element of a healthy brand. It’s a delicate, unspoken perception of shared values and a mutual understanding of what each party brings to the table in a transaction. It’s the reason organizations will contract with you to deliver their packages, tweet on their behalf, process their payroll, manage their IT infrastructure, you name it. 

The good news is that, in most cases, a crisis of trust doesn’t necessarily draw the curtains completely on your relationships. There are ways to restore the faith. But your efforts have to start immediately.

NSA or Silicon Valley?

Take the major US tech companies—Google, Yahoo, Microsoft, Apple, Facebook—during the Snowden fallout. When Snowden let the cat out of the bag about NSA’s PRISM program, which tapped directly into servers at these companies in order to vacuum up data, giants that had once appeared inviolable were suddenly very, very exposed, at least as far as their customers knew. Suddenly, none of their email, data storage or software services were believed to be secure—or at least beyond the grasp of the NSA, especially among foreign enterprise customers. 

In a crisis, your contacts need to know what happened, need to know where you stand, and there was the critical question, especially abroad: Were these companies complicit in the spying? The heavyweights staked out their position using all available communications channels, distancing themselves from the practices of the agency by writing open letters of complaint to the Senate and the president, by filing lawsuits against the NSA to protest the secrecy of court orders that forced them to turn over data, and by very publicly scrutinizing government surveillance in the news media and online. 

In fact, since the crisis, the Silicon Valley/tech bloc has become one of the most vocal critics of government surveillance in general. By making it clear they were on the side of their client companies, the tech organizations made a critical first step in reestablishing trust.

The new brand perception

Next in the repair process: actually addressing the security breaches so that they are less likely to happen again, and communicating those steps to clients in order to restore pre-crisis perception of these brands. For example, to quell the fears of global enterprise customers, IBM has spent more than $1B building data centers abroad, where foreign governments and corporations can exercise greater control over the security of the data. Microsoft will build “transparency centers,” where foreign governments can inspect their codes for any back door access. And Google, Mozilla and Twitter, among others, have adopted Perfect Forward Secrecy encryption, a next-gen version that the NSA can’t decode. 

By responding swiftly and authentically, by addressing the problem and communicating clearly about solutions, Silicon Valley companies managed to keep the public’s mistrust of the NSA from tainting their client relationships. Most importantly, the company didn’t let poor crisis management become part of the crisis. After all, the sooner you seize the story with your response, and not lack thereof, the sooner you can reclaim trust. 

The Takeaway: Relationships can be salvaged after a breach of trust, but your company must be authentic in its apologies, clear about allegiance, and quick to implement preventative measures for future crises.  Don’t forget to galvanize your people, too. Your employees can also help to restore confidence by spreading the message with their own relationships. 

Download our new article to see how creating brand ambassadors out of all your employees can open new opportunities and lead to greater business growth.


Philip Garrity is an associate editor of 914INC., a quarterly business-lifestyle publication serving Westchester County, New York. Concurrently, he’s an editorial assistant for Westchester Magazine. 

RelSci is a technology solutions company that helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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