Surviving the techlash

In the previous Relevance Report, I addressed the major shift in the tech industry, in which tech companies are experiencing recurring scandals and are “no longer a source of good, but also a source of the bad.” I claimed, “Consequently, the tech spokespeople need to adjust their crisis management know-how to manage the new combat era of Techlash.” 

Since the Techlash keeps evolving, we should be aware of its changes in order to assess future directions.The first step is to realize that the Techlash is here to stay. 

The increasing scrutiny

The past year was filled with negative coverage of the tech industry. Its leaders and their innovations are no longer worshiped, but rather under increased scrutiny. The coverage tone has shifted from “positive bias” to “negative bias” (focusing only on the downside of tech). The rise of “tech investigative journalism” resulted in numerous scoops regarding various corporate misdeeds. And the critics are demanding changes that are ranging from the essential to the impossible. 

This critical tone is now unmistakable and everywhere, including at tech events, as Axios' Ina Fried described: “Not that long ago, what people wanted from a tech conference was to hear from executives about the next shiny object coming down the pipeline. But nowadays, tech CEOs aren’t talking about what’s fresh from their corporate ovens—instead, they’re the ones being grilled.” 

Blaming tech companies of all the bad human behaviors (online and offline) became a common practice. You wish to get famous and adored? Talk against the tech companies. You wish to attract voters? Demonizing tech is “good politics.” 

Government action and #BreakUpBigTech

Despite several years of scandals, tech companies are still growing and successful. Their shares are skyrocketing after massive earnings reports. Consumers continue to heavily use tech products as if they can’t (or don’t want to) avoid them. In essence, tech is too dominant, convenient, and beneficial to boycott. 

So if usage is not affected by the techlash, what is? Consumers’ sentiment about government action: They are demanding more of it, leading to calls for tougher regulations, including the call to #BreakUpBigTech. 

According to a recent YouGov survey, nearly two-thirds of Americans would support breaking up tech firms by undoing mergers “if it means ensuring more competition in the future.” The poll showed that the support is bipartisan, and that on the extreme ends there is even more eagerness. 

Such polls don’t provide the trade-offs of government action, such as degrading services, the ability to fight “malicious actors,” and raising prices. But the techlash has generated an upsurge of active probes into tech companies: The Justice Department, the Federal Trade Commission, the House Judiciary Committee, the House Financial Services Committee, and the State attorneys general are all investigating Facebook, Google, Amazon and Apple about their competition and privacy practices. 

Overall, tech companies and their representatives should adjust to a new ecosystem of aggressive tech opponents that includes conservatives and liberals, regulators, antitrust and privacy advocates, tech workers, scholarly tech critics and tech journalists (who may regret decades of “cheerleading” tech). 

Responsibility, transparency, and corrective action

Because of the increased scrutiny, tech companies need to sharpen their communication strategies. 

First, companies must take more responsibility. As Apple CEO Tim Cook recently stated, “If you built a chaos factory, you can’t dodge responsibility for the chaos.” For example, tech companies constantly blame their algorithms: On the one hand, they glorify their core technology for solving many societal problems, on the other, they quickly blame the same technologies for any wrongdoing. It is absurd. Stop blaming the machine. People built it. 

Second, after so many “apology tours,” perhaps tech companies should create a new position titled CAO — a full-time “Chief Apology Officer.” Cynicism aside, saying “sorry” is no longer enough. And even though the companies vowed to fix their issues, a lot of their fixes eventually required further fixing. As both outside critics and their employees put pressure on companies to pay attention to the greater good, they are increasingly being required to address societal issues. 

Third, as coverage is moving from “too big to fail” to “too big to fix its problems,” tech companies need to put a greater emphasis on the rigorous corrective actions they are going to implement. A recent poll by Fleishman-Hillard found 78% of Americans believe that companies should take more action to address the consequences of their policies, practices, and products to foster trust among consumers. Being ethical by maintaining transparency with customers is an essential step. 

Lastly, I still believe that the best outcome of the Techlash is that tech companies are learning to work with governments, academia, and consumers to find solutions. In the long run, this wide collaboration could provide reputational benefits. 

To download a full copy of the 2020 Relevance Report, click here.

Nirit Weiss-Blatt, Ph.D., is a visiting research fellow at USC Annenberg who has worked as a tech journalist and in tech PR in Israel.