Is Google trying to rebuild its reputation?

Today’s news that Google has released a list of governments that seek to censor its servcies or request personal information on users feels like the latest step in the company’s effort to rebuild a reputation that has had some sticky moments in recent weeks and months.

The company’s corporate motto – “Do no evil” – has been used by some as an ethical stick with which to beat it as it moved into China and agreed to self-censor its searches. And its disastrous launch of Buzz, its social networking service, met with much resistance from its community of users and, more recently, privacy regulators.

It was all a bit surprising. In the past few decades, few companies have demonstrated (shaped?) a better understanding of the changing nature of consumer behaviour than Google. So, what happened?

Rohit Deshpande, a professor of marketing at Harvard Business School, says that a lot of companies, particularly young technology businesses that grow quickly, are confronted with this challenge. They expand so fast that the founders often don’t have time to think about the big vision. What is the company striving to be over the long term? What is their brand image going to be?

I recently spoke with Reiner Evers, the head of Trendwatching, who says that companies often need to make a judgment about whether they want to be a big global company or focus on a niche. Google clearly believes in the former but can it reconcile that with its founding motto?

I don’t know the answer but it certainly isn’t easy achieving that balance. One thing that is certain is that Google seems to be trying to respond to the criticism or, at the very least, is rediscovering how to communicate what it is doing in a way that doesn’t alienate but puts it in a good light.

To be sure, there will be many more such tricky situations but their decision to relocate their China search engine to Hong Kong to stop censorship, their efforts to claw back their original launch plans for Buzz and the decision to publish the government list, suggest that they are trying a bit harder to reconcile the two sides of their business or, at the very least, getting better at communicating it to the outside world.

I don’t know if it will work, but from a management point of view, they seem to be going about things in the right way.

About the authors

Stefan Stern writes a column on Tuesdays on management. He is winner of the 2010 Towers Watson award for excellence in HR journalism, and has previously won awards from the Work Foundation and the Management Consultancies Association.

Ravi Mattu is the editor of Business Life, the FT's management features section, and a former editor of the Mastering Management series. He joined the FT in 2000 from Prospect magazine

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