As PR and public affairs specialists, we know tech clients will be asking our advice on how to navigate a potentially new administration and a Congress that remains split between Democrats and Republicans. From our point of view, there’s no one overall effect on tech policy. We think it will differ issue by issue. Here’s our perspective on some hot tech issues and some advice on how to handle PR/communications.
The dominant social platforms have been hit with disinformation like never before. An extremely easy tactic to use, disinformation can be carried out by anyone – from angry individuals or groups to nation state hackers. The problem isn’t going away any time soon, and it remains one of the most difficult to police and remediate. We don’t see this as a partisan issue: Disinformation remains a threat to democracy and free speech. Big social will need the help of cybersecurity companies and possibly law enforcement and government to tackle this one.
PR Advice: Focus on the dangers of disinformation rather than directly attacking individual companies or platforms. The problem is larger than Big Social, and there’s room for more research and commentary on ways to thwart disinformation.
As the earlier antitrust hearings and House Judiciary Committee antitrust report made clear, a lot of people have had it with what they see as monopolistic, anticompetitive practices of some big tech companies. The antitrust case against Google brought by the Department of Justice (DOJ) and 11 state attorneys general is a major moment in government v. big tech, harkening back to the government’s 1998 suit against Microsoft. Whether or not a DOJ under Biden will pursue the suit is an open question. However, Democratic lawmakers will almost certainly draft legislation to rein in some of big tech’s alleged behaviors. The President will support and probably encourage it, and it shouldn’t be too hard to get Republicans to sign on. The process will be a dance, with both sides having to concede points, but the effort itself will send a message – and might just produce a law.
PR Advice: Unless a company is directly affected by a behavior, our general advice would be to stay out of this debate. The tech ecosystem is intertwined, and the big platforms are customers of many in the tech world and drivers of a strong U.S. economy overall. Brands should, however, take advantage of the opportunity to point out what they are doing to enhance competition, increase diversity and champion smaller businesses, as these will be priorities for both the administration and the Congress.
U.S. Competitiveness in Tech
Generally, the U.S. private sector prefers the government to maintain a “hands-off” approach to setting tech policy. Other nations, however, are more focused and aggressive. For instance, China’s Digital Silk Road initiative, which aims to expand China’s digital footprint across more than 100 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean, is more strategic than any U.S. initiative. If the U.S. wants to be a lead player in – if not dominate – technologies such as AI, quantum computing and cybersecurity, a similar national effort might be required.
A Biden administration and the House and Senate need to take challenges to American competitiveness and technological dominance seriously. They affect both national security and our economic well being.
PR Advice: Depending on the new administration’s stance toward our major tech competitors, companies will choose either to align with or go further than stated policy positions. The options could depend on how a company wants to be positioned in the market – and in which markets. Those doing business in the public sector, for example, might take a stronger pro-U.S. stance and include that in their communications.
It’s widely expected that some of the key privacy and cybersecurity players from the Obama Administration will return to prominence under Biden. This is a very knowledgeable group in terms of the technology, the tech policy, and the industry players. The challenge will be to be open to and incorporate new ideas. Cybersecurity is continually changing and growing in importance daily as a greater part of the risk calculus for corporate executives and government agencies. The Trump administration has been bullish on offensive cyber, which has led to more public takedowns, actions against and exposures of nation state actors – a change for the National Security Agency (NSA). By and large, the cybersecurity community has regarded these more aggressive government actions as a good thing. It remains to be seen whether the directive from the president will be the same in a Biden administration. One thing that is fairly certain: There will be a Cybersecurity Coordinator, or czar, in the White House, as recommended by the Cyberspace Solarium Commission.
PR Advice: Cybersecurity PR is different from PR in other disciplines. It’s a crowded, competitive, research-hungry media landscape where there’s always a crisis. It’s full of bad news, which some companies can’t tolerate but others thrive on. There’s always room for an outlier who’s discovered a breach or incursion. Options include taking the high road and being primarily a thought leader or jumping into the fray and outcompeting the other players. It’s a challenge to do both, but some companies manage.
The Trump administration has supported U.S. private sector efforts to lead in AI, a group of strategic technologies that will benefit all sectors of the economy. The administration launched a national AI strategy supplemented by separate efforts in the Departments of Defense (DoD) and Energy. These initiatives will likely continue in a Biden administration. However, a Democratic president will want to put his own stamp on the issues and will also place more emphasis on questions such as the ethics of AI and potential bias in AI. These are issues that the industry itself is working on, but they’ll be under more scrutiny now.
PR Advice: Take advantage of opportunities to point out how AI is a boon to various sectors of the economy. Emphasize how it is not “scary.” Where possible, engage in conversations about the need to frame AI in a way that is ethical, non-biased and respects American values.
In an unusual plan for a Republican, President Trump has been pushing the DoD to stand up a national 5G network with spectrum it owns. The idea has been controversial since first floated in 2018, with the nation’s powerful wireless carriers being the chief opponents. Some speculate that a Democratic president could greet the idea favorably as a way to give the U.S. a leg up on China. However, given how long it took to get FirstNet up and running despite a critical need for a wireless network for first responders, the Biden administration should think twice about this one. The private sector will fight the idea, as they should, and with the Senate and House evenly divided, we don’t see the plan advancing.
PR Advice: This is another “where you stand depends on where you sit” issue. For many brands, 5G can become a talking point for how future innovations are expected to roll out. Telecom carriers and 5G infrastructure producers have reason to be more aggressive on 5G policy and what the private sector can do without government intervention.
While the Trump administration differed from the Obama administration on many aspects of tech policy, much has changed over the last four years. Big social and big tech platforms are widely seen as having more data about individuals than ever before, and the U.S. came close to passing a national privacy law. We predict the differences between the current administration and a new Biden administration will be less in substance and more in style or execution. We are likely to see more legislation and broad policy setting as opposed to individual suits or initiatives directed at specific companies. The tech sector needs to be on guard and needs to demonstrate the good it does not only for American innovation but also for diversity and inclusion.
RH Strategic is a Seattle and D.C.-based communications firm with a nationwide presence and additional global reach via membership in the Worldcom Public Relations Group. We provide strategic public relations for innovators in the technology, government and healthcare markets.