The tech headlines this year say it all.
Amazon is stifling competition. Google is selling out to authoritarian regimes. Twitter is the mouthpiece of demagoguery, lies and (coincidence?) our president. Facebook is ruining democracy.
The gig economy is exploitative. Investment mega-rounds are breeding weak governance. We’re addicted to video games and Instagram, and smartphones have extinguished our ability to think deeply. Self-driving cars are full of hype and low on safety.
Legislators spanning the aisle want to break up big tech. Women and minorities continue to be wildly underrepresented (and undercompensated). And Uber, Lyft and many more in the 2019 IPO class are hemorrhaging cash.
Yes, things can seem glum, if not cataclysmic, inside our tech PR bubble.
In an arena long known for optimism and innovation—from the magic of your smartphone to the miracle of medical advances—reporters are bummed. As tech companies have grown into global Goliaths, journalists have transformed from fawning admirers to tough critics.
It gets even harder for PR pros. The news media industry is still shrinking, go-to reporters continue to wear more hats than ever, and the competition for coverage is Olympian. With more and more reporters focusing on big tech and FANG (Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google) as well as the acronym-finder-fail LUPAS (Lyft, Uber, Pinterest, AirBNB, Slack/Spotify), winning ink as a true startup is a battle and a half.
What’s a tech PR pro trying to win the day for a tech startup to do? Exciting society-shaping stories still exist—but it helps to pull back for broader context, which is easy to forget inside the machine.
Here are a few ways to get outside the tech bubble to recast stories in a fresh light—and crack open client opportunities.
- Spend time with non-techies. Virtually or physically: Call your parents, your kids, your sister—anybody who doesn’t live inside the tech bubble. Ask them about tech (from Mark Zuckerberg to artificial intelligence to their favorite e-sports team) and what they’re seeing in the news. That conversation is usually an amazing reminder that here in the bubble, tech is a dominant story, and that outside it, most people just think of technology as the way to get things done, not a philosophy or a curse. It’s an invaluable reset and always sparks fresh stories. Bonus: Jaunts home for the holidays are a terrific time to do this, and if you’re staying put, a week’s worth of the “Today” show or “Good Morning America” is a fine stand-in.
- Point back to the big picture. Journalists are usually following the daily horserace, not the arc of history. Remind them about the old ways and how much slower, weaker and inefficient they were. As a savvy software client recently responded when I peppered him with tough questions, we always have the option not to use a computer. It’s a reminder that many of today’s tech problems stem from incredible advances that have created serious side effects. Don’t diminish those side effects, but remind us that tech is still mostly a force for good.
- Embrace the agita. Yeah, insiders are annoyed. Acknowledge it and dig into the tough decisions that have surfaced, exploring the conundrums that today’s leaders face. Show how your executives are grappling with complexity—like running a gig economy company that must deal with California legislation that treats contractors as employees, or raising enough money to compete without getting flabby—and aren’t sugarcoating the situation. There’ll be a few warts in those stories, but they’ll be interesting and honest warts that go a lot further with discerning journalists (and their readers) as they present a new era of management challenges.
- Propose a real solution. We have an opportunity like no other before to springboard past Silicon Valley lemming-speak into true societal leadership—if you dare. Espouse a forward-thinking position, such as calling for investors to put half their funds into women-led companies or demanding that the SEC regulate inequality in businesses. Tell CEOs (and engineers and VCs) that they’re overpaid and should pay a wealth tax to put toward affordable housing. Or object strenuously to that idea—and present an alternative model featuring global remote work. Either way, reach back into the creativity banks and build a position that solves tech’s problems and presents a thoughtful rationale behind it. Yes, you’ll tick off some potential customers, but you’ll also make hardcore fans for life. Tip: Bylined “manifestos” are a powerful way to do this.
If the challenge seems daunting, it is. Old habits die hard. But it’s a new era of tech omnipotence, and with increased visibility, the tech world must adjust. Like many industries before them, from Wall Street to oil majors, tech companies must now contend with the aftermath of their success: tougher questions and deserved scrutiny.
With a little perspective—and the courage to take on the front-page ideas of the day—PR pros can help clients break free of the tech echo chamber and craft stories that win media outlets’ interest, excite audiences and reawaken the optimist inside.
Matt Stewart is an executive vice president at Method Communications, where he works with growth-stage tech companies working in enterprise SaaS, security, satellites and much more.