As Techlash Continues to Strengthen, an Effective Communications Strategy is Crucial
Every industry has a honeymoon phase, a window of opportunity for new technology before the disillusionment arrives. Leading tech companies enjoyed years of flattering media coverage and celebrated product launches. This tech optimism established the negative associations of tech criticism: in criticizing technology, you were speaking out against progress and innovation. Many tech journalists expressed optimistic thoughts out loud and whispered dystopian remarks. Techlash reversed this formula. Since its emergence in 2017, the antagonism has reached new heights. The use of the phrase became so pervasive in the coming year that the word “Techlash” secured its place in the Oxford Dictionary as a runner-up “word of the year.” What factors formed this dramatic shift, how did the pandemic impact Techlash, and what can your brand do about it? Techlash Roots The concept of Techlash, or “Tech-lash” as The Economist referred to it in 2013, is not new. However, according to research about the Techlash, it enjoyed a renaissance leading up to Donald Trump’s victory in November 2016. The tech platforms were blamed for enabling widespread misinformation and disinformation and not acting quickly enough to squelch it. In the post-election reckoning, tech journalists asked, “how did we get here?” and tech employees asked, “what role did we play?” The nuanced answer is that it was the accumulation of various issues that ‘broke the camel’s back.’ Extremist online content, cyber-attacks, to the adoption of artificial intelligence raised the alarm about data privacy and fueled allegations of an anti-diversity culture of discrimination. The refrain of tech companies’ response was typically the same—our intentions were to build something good, we know we need to do better, and we’re working on immediate actions to fix it. Those responses were backlashed by the media and governments. From China to the European Union, regulations are now being put in place to limit everything from artificial intelligence to Alibaba, citing real issues like personal privacy concerns and anticompetitive practices. Why is the Techlash stronger now? To begin, COVID-19. The pandemic shed light on the immense power companies wield. While tech companies enjoyed a bit of a reprieve from the Techlash in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, people generally feel that companies have gotten too powerful, too big, too rich, that by itself creates a backlash. During the endless lockdown, while most businesses were playing defense, Big Tech was able to play offense and become even stronger. Second, major political events. Before the 2020 presidential elections’ results, journalists predicted that “If, when the dust clears, the tech firms are seen to have aided rather than prevented efforts to undermine the election, the blowback will far surpass anything that they endured in the wake of 2016.” The civil unrest in January was a seminal moment for this blowback. It was accompanied by two Congressional hearings over antitrust concern (July 2020) and misinformation (March 2021), which contained harsh bipartisan accusations. Third, the overall framing. If the tech companies are the villains, those who oppose them are the heroes. The negative associations of tech criticism were officially replaced with admiration. What should you do before your brand encounters Techlash? Although Techlash often focuses on social media and the information ecosystem, it’s important to remember that every company is a data company. What follows are seven areas for your consideration: 1- Provide transparency in how data is handled. According to a 2019 study by Pew Research, “roughly six-in-ten U.S. adults say they do not think it is possible to go through daily life without having data collected about them by companies or the government.” Knowing where your customer data is stored and, more importantly, how it is handled is crucial. It’s critical that your policies are easily accessible and communicated regarding the care you place on customer data. Your customers should know how you guard their privacy in a simpler way than this. 2- Communicate your core values. Ensure all stakeholders, investors, regulators, and consumers understand your core principles. Highlight the two or three things that are most important to you. You should illustrate that your actions are based on those values that you stand for and believe in. 3- Demonstrate how you are enabling human progress. The fear of machines taking over the world may still be science fiction, but news headlines about factory workers being replaced by robots are only partly wrong. Ford has done a great job with this, reassuring the public and their employees that while factory automation is growing, the company will always need people to assemble vehicles. Emerging technologies can free up employees to focus on higher-value work. 4- Humanize your brand. Most tech companies are viewed as black boxes producing black boxes. Look for ways to illuminate the humanity inside your company. Showcase not just your leaders but employees as well. 5- Educate on the complexity of the issues. Techlash issues have tradeoffs. In a simplistic world of dichotomies, you can still present the nuances. People would appreciate the more detailed information. 6- Create coalitions within the industry to deal with the big issues. There are areas where a united approach can make a more significant difference than individual efforts. In some cases, the truthful answer is, “The issues are bigger than one of us. We need to battle them together.” 7- Tell your “tech for good” story. Look for opportunities to show how not only your technology but also how your company is benefitting society. Demonstrating good corporate citizenry and philanthropy to giving back to the communities is a good first step. For all the Techlash they face, some of the largest tech companies responded quickly during the pandemic by providing millions of dollars in grants to small businesses to providing cloud platforms to help speed up and improve the rollout of Covid-19 vaccinations. Think about your story. You may not have the ability to provide millions in grants or hire thousands of workers but finding ways to help through actions that prove your attention to corporate social responsibility, even on the local level, will go a long way to positioning your company favorably. It’s more than staying one step ahead of stakeholder concerns regarding issues such as consumer privacy and data handling. It’s about doing the right thing for your employees, customers, and the public. About the authors: Katie Huang Shin is the President of AxiCom US. A seasoned global communications executive with experience that encompasses branding, corporate communications, marketing, organizational development, and change management. Katie guides and advises technology brands through its company transformation in a senior agency capacity. Her specialties include developing integrated global solutions customized to client business and marketing challenges across geographies and cultures. Tod Freeman is a Vice President and General Manager of AxiCom Texas. Tod has more than 20 years’ in-house corporate experience with Fortune 500 companies, where he led various communications functions at IBM, Barclays and Sony. His broad experience includes media strategy and advisement, executive positioning and digital content. Nirit Weiss-Blatt, Ph.D. is the author of the book “The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication.” She is a former Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. If you are interested in learning more about the AxiCom team, please contact Tod Freeman at firstname.lastname@example.org.