Today’s tech companies face a dilemma. Buried underneath headlines about the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 presidential election, and recent social justice movements are stories that point to a massive change in public perception of tech companies — and not a favorable one. In 2021 we will see the blunt force of government and public opinion bear down on all of tech.
How did this happen? Going into 2020, we expected this to be a pretty big year for tech industry stories. 5G networks were starting to roll out to consumers, and tech CEOs were scheduled to talk to Congress about their business practices and their role in society. Then the whole world changed, and people began interfacing with technology in new, more intense ways. Homebound, peoples’ social media use skyrocketed, employees transitioned to remote work, and election year intensity generated fears of vote hacking by foreign governments and fake news infiltrating American’s news feeds.
In the past weeks, the conversation about the documentary The Social Dilemma confirmed what we have been suspecting all year: that fear and skepticism are reshaping the way people think about and engage with technology at large. Big tech companies like Facebook and Twitter have long been combating this image, with varying levels of success, but other tech companies — even those dedicated to missions of making a positive impact on society — must now contend with the public’s generalized mistrust of tech.
Add to this the fact that both Congress and the U.S. Department of Justice are looking for effective ways to bring big tech to heel. Recently, the Committee on the Judiciary released a 449-page report examining the dominance of tech giants Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google. In its assessment of Facebook, it states that the company’s playbook was to “acquire, copy and kill” its “nascent competitive threats.” Given this and other findings, we expect the next months and years will see significant government intervention and regulation.
So, are we at the doorstep of the dystopian future as foretold in “The Matrix” or “Minority Report“? What happens after the election is decided and government gets down to business? Will the companies that are applying technology to fight climate change, to expand access to telemedicine and online education opportunities, and to build smart cities be overrun by regulation and shouted down by a fearful public? Or will they be free to thrive?
Tech companies now face a PR and public policy minefield. At RH Strategic, we pride ourselves on working with many mission-driven tech companies committed to developing solutions to society’s problems and inciting change with technology. We know that with technology comes power and, with power, responsibility. No one can deny that public perception has shifted, and good intentions are no longer enough. Platitudes and “trust us” promises of protecting private data are meaningless.
As communications professionals, we recommend that our clients and the tech industry at large take this opportunity to reassess their storytelling to ensure it isn’t tone-deaf, presumptuous, or overlooking the genuinely valid concerns of a free and civil society. Do not assume that audiences will naturally see the good in what you do. Remember they will have been through the trauma of a global pandemic, social unrest and a divisive election.
The communicator’s job is not just to talk but to listen. Today’s audiences are more skeptical, certainly, but they also want new solutions for keeping their families safe, educating their children and accessing quality healthcare. People want real stories about progress and equity, about major breakthroughs and the creation of new jobs. They want to know that tech is primarily a force for good and mindful of rights, liberties, equality and privacy. We need these stories now more than ever.
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. Contact us to learn more about what we have to offer.