5 ways PR pros can help tech clients weather increasing scrutiny

Online companies—especially social media platforms—are facing renewed examination as the midterm elections near. Here’s how to advise digital players as congressional hearings loom.

PR tech tips

Another tech reckoning is coming to Capitol Hill.

As tech executives from Facebook, Twitter and Google prepare for a fresh round of testimony this fall before Congress about election interference, it’s obvious that they are operating in a new reality. Never before has the division between Bay Area companies and policymakers at the state and federal level been more evident.

As Ben Smith put it, “The blinding rise of Donald Trump has masked another major trend in American politics: the palpable, and perhaps permanent, turn against the tech industry.”

The tech titans who used to be seen as the bright new avatars of American innovation are increasingly being portrayed as sinister centers of unaccountable power, a transition likely to have major consequences for the industry and U.S. politics.

This isn’t just a qualitative trend; there is data to back it up. In the backdrop of Facebook scandals this year and headlines about major CEOs like Elon Musk, surveys are showing that Americans’ trust in tech companies continues to drop.

So how PR pros advise tech clients and leaders to break out of “the bubble” and understand what it takes to help policymakers better understand the distinct culture, business and technologies being incubated out West?

As media outlets focus on issues such as artificial intelligence, cryptocurrencies, autonomous vehicles and machine learning, these are the imperatives that tech company leaders must understand and appreciate when it comes to the reputation of their brands:

1. Relationships matter. Invest the time, resources and effort to build real relationships with policymakers. Get out of your office, jump on a plane and meet face to face, or, better yet, share some war stories at the bar. This can’t be accomplished by hiring a lobbyist. These are real people who have families and hobbies. Get to know them as individuals.

2. Identify emerging issues. Not everyone is reading TechCrunch or The Information, and it’s important to understand that government is reactionary—especially at the state level. Once you have established lines of communications, send personal notes providing updates on your journey along the way. It is imperative to provide the right context, especially as it relates to emerging issues or disruptive technologies that might displace people or industries. Being open to debate is essential.

3. Find people who will take ownership of your issue. Be smart about how you approach lawmakers, and do your homework before you engage. Have a fundamental understanding of how each legislative body functions and who sits on the relevant committees or caucuses with oversight of your issue or industry. Regardless of what people say, everyone who serves in public office thinks about their legacy and leadership potential. Explore ways to have your products or technologies tested so you are in control of the framework. The most successful companies empower lawmakers to become their advocates. You need to bring together a chorus of supportive voices who can validate what you’re doing.

4. No surprises. Nobody likes to be caught on their heels, especially when they invested time advocating on your behalf. Nothing short of full transparency is key. Always err on the side of letting people know any pivots your business is taking, and don’t run scared from bad news.

5. Respect the process. Governments move at a glacial place, much slower than the private sector. Don’t expect a miracle overnight, and understand that it’s important for policymakers to bring consensus around an issue before passing legislation or making a regulatory change. Don’t get presumptuous, and don’t think you can strongarm the process just because of who you are or because you wrote a personal check to a campaign fund. Look for opportunities to speak out on your issue and play a constructive role in the dialogue as it unfolds.

Blain Rethmeier is a managing director at Ditto Public Relations, where he leads the firm’s crisis communications and tech policy relations practices.

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