One company’s bad news is another’s golden opportunity.
When Uber’s autonomous vehicle accident threatened the entire self-driving car industry, some of the beleaguered company’s rivals were quick to prove they were different.
Waymo, a Google subsidiary that has been developing autonomous cars since 2009, sent its CEO on a media tour to discuss how Waymo’s technology would have avoided a similar tragedy.
“I want to be really respectful of Elaine, the woman who lost her life, and her family,” said Waymo CEO John Krafcik at a National Automobile Dealers Association meeting in Las Vegas on Saturday in his first public comments on the Arizona death, which has raised questions on whether self-driving technology should be tested on public roads.
“(But) in the case of a pedestrian or a pedestrian with a bicycle, we have a lot of confidence that our technology would be robust and would be able to handle situations like that one,” he said.
Uber’s fatal accident in Arizona threatened the autonomous vehicle industry, because artificial intelligence is supposed to avoid just that sort of tragic event.
USA Today continued:
“This type of scenario is exactly what (autonomous vehicles) are built to handle, seeing an obstacle far ahead and if necessary stopping,” Raj Rajkumar, the head of autonomous vehicle research at Carnegie Mellon University, told USA Today. “All groups working in this space likely are having intensive meetings now, trying to find out what happened with the Uber system, and if they may have the same issue.”
Waymo’s CEO has been careful to strike the right tone while talking about the loss of life.
USA Today reported:
“For those of us at Waymo, it was a very sad day, because that was an accident that was in a car that had technology representing the self-driving space,” he said. “(For Waymo), it is the mission of safety and avoiding accidents just like that one that brings us all together as a company. So, it struck us, I think, in a very, very, very major way.”
He also gave some figures to illustrate the extensive safety tests that Waymo has conducted:
“We’ve now driven on public roads for more than 5 million miles. We’ve put together this amazing testing program, which includes those public roads, and we do a lot of work in simulation, 5 billion miles in computer simulation, testing our software and our sensing,” he said. “We’ve developed tens of thousands of actual physical tests that really put our technology through its paces and ensure that it’s strong and capable and of course very, very safe.”
Meanwhile, in Silicon Valley
Apple, the tech giant known for advocating user privacy—such as when the FBI wanted to break into the San Bernadino gunman’s phone—has spoken out about Facebook’s data breach.
“I think that this certain situation is so dire and has become so large that probably some well-crafted regulation is necessary,” [Apple CEO Tim Cook said]. “The ability of anyone to know what you’ve been browsing about for years, who your contacts are, who their contacts are, things you like and dislike and every intimate detail of your life — from my own point of view, it shouldn’t exist.”
Cook joined the chorus calling for regulation to rein in Facebook and other companies profiting off user data.
“It’s clear to me that something, some large profound change is needed,” said Apple chief Tim Cook on Saturday.
“I’m personally not a big fan of regulation because sometimes regulation can have unexpected consequences to it, however I think this certain situation is so dire, and has become so large, that probably some well-crafted regulation is necessary,” said Cook, who co-chaired the event this year.
IBM also let its CEO speak out.
“If you’re going to use these technologies, you have to tell people you’re doing that, and they should never be surprised,” IBM chief executive [Ginni Rometty] said on Monday.
“(We have to let) people opt in and opt out, and be clear that ownership of the data does belong to the creator,” said Rometty.
Here are three lessons from these companies sounding off about their rivals:
1. Send a person.
Give your organization a human face. When speaking about a subject that is controversial or deals with broad public policy, a spokesperson can give your message authenticity. By having their CEOs do the talking, Waymo, Apple and IBM took part in the conversation without appearing to crassly use tragedy and scandal to get their company in the headlines.
Apple is even more fortunate in that Tim Cook has a long history of speaking about data privacy. His and the company’s record lend it authenticity.
2. Talk about what matters to your audience.
When speaking about their competition, all three companies avoided mudslinging or overt bragging. Instead, they focused on what the audience wants to know (Are their cars safe? Is their data secure?) and let the audience make the differentiation themselves. When newsjacking or providing commentary, it isn’t necessary to drive your point home. Let the audience draw their own conclusions. (They will anyway.)
3. Avoid naming your competition.
Though the story is technically about what your competitor did wrong, your message should highlight what you are doing right. Talking at length about your rival—even if it’s to point out where they erred—doesn’t achieve your goal of highlighting your own brand.
Instead, detail what you are doing to avoid a similar scandal or crisis.
Waymo shared data about how it was testing its cars and about its track record of accident-free driving. Apple and IBM focused on what public policies are needed to keep users’ data safe.
In a contrasting example, Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of SpaceX and Tesla, deleted his company’s Facebook pages after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke. However, since his stunt focused on his negative feelings about Facebook, his companies didn’t benefit from the coverage. Instead, writers mused about the rocky relationship between Musk and Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg,
There is also a tumultuous history between Musk and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. They disagree on the benefits of artificial technology. So much so that Zuckerberg once called Musk a “naysayer.”
Musk wasted little time in shooting back over Twitter, writing, “I’ve talked to Mark about this. His understanding of the subject is limited.”
How would you advise someone to speak about their competition, Ragan/PR Daily readers?