Wednesday, May 26, 2021

Business Bookshelf Podcast - Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt - Author of "The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication"


Thank you, Lance Peppler, for having me on your great podcast. I appreciate our discussion. 

The transcript below, via OtterAI, was slightly edited for clarity.  

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Business Bookshelf Podcast Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt The Techlash

Lance: Welcome to the Business Bookshelf Podcast. I am your host – Lance Peppler. Today, our guest is Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt. Dr. Nirit is a Former Research Fellow at the University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. Her specialty is in the tech news field. Nirit is the author of the book The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication:

"This book provides an in-depth analysis of the evolution of tech journalism. The emerging tech-backlash is a story of pendulum swings: We are currently in tech-dystopianism after a long period spent in tech-utopianism. Tech companies were used to 'cheerleading' coverage of product launches. This long tech-press honeymoon ended and was replaced by a new era of mounting criticism focused on tech's negative impact on society. When and why did tech coverage shift? How did tech companies respond to the rise of tech criticism?"

Nirit: Glad to be here, Lance. Thank you for having me. Lance: It is fantastic having you. So, Nirit, where am I speaking to you from today?


Apple's spaceship


Nirit: I’m in Cupertino, California. Also known as Apple's town, its giant spaceship is actually, in my view. Lance: Oh, wow. What do you think of that spaceship? Nirit: Beautiful. Lance: I wonder if people are going to work there. Are people populating the space these days, or it's an empty building? Nirit: It is not empty. I see cars over there. So, the lab people are in there, defiantly.

Lance: My normal question to authors, just to get to know you a bit more, is: What do you enjoy doing in Cupertino, California? 

Nirit: Well, being in the Bay Area is very different from where I used to live. I'm originally from Israel, and in the past four years, I lived in Los Angeles, mid-city LA. A few months ago, I moved here. I remember, after my first night here, the building manager was very apologetic; he told me: "Oh, you are in the apartment that faces the road - I'm so sorry for the noise." And I was like: "What noise? There were no sirens from police cars, no helicopters above my head - that was a really good night!" So, to put things in perspective, I guess the major thing I'm enjoying here is the quietness.




Lance: Where about from Israel did you come from? Tel-Aviv? Jerusalem? Nirit: Near Tel-Aviv, mid-Israel. Lance: Do you have family in there still? Nirit: All my family and friends are there. Lance: And how are they doing right now? Nirit: Better. They had passed the Corona before everybody else because they got all the population vaccinated. Lance: They were in a war zone almost at the moment. Nirit: They were. My family was actually in bomb shelters for two weeks. And I was worried sick about them. But now, we are in a ceasefire, so hope for the best.


"For more than a decade, I'm researching the interplay between the tech media & tech PR"


Lance: Hopefully, it stays like that, for sure. So, on to pleasant things. Could you give us an overview of your career?

Nirit: Sure. Prior to my academic journey, I worked in the tech industry - in both tech journalism and tech PR. First, I represented tech companies and pitched the media. Then, I switched sides to be a tech reporter and deputy-editor, now being on the receiving end of the PR emails. That was interesting. I covered the tech ecosystem. You know, Israel is "The Start-up Nation." So, mainly start-ups and entrepreneurs.

Around that time, I've finished my Master's degree in communication and Political Science. And when I looked for academic studies about my occupation, my passion – tech journalism – I found a depressing void. Most of the studies are about the political field. And I was like – why does nobody studying this type of coverage? For me, it was the most interesting thing in the world. I looked for examinations of the tech media agenda and I found none. So, I decided to do it myself. And now, for more than a decade, I have been researching the interplay between the tech media and tech PR. First, Ph.D. in communication, documenting the glories days of "Innovation Journalism" and "Product Journalism." And in the past four years, I have been researching the emerging Techlash.

Lance: I really enjoyed the book. Did you write it as part of your Ph.D. and carried on? Could you tell us the purpose of writing it?

Nirit: Sure. My initial research fellowship, which I thought would end with a few articles in academic journals, was based on the criticism that the tech media is not tough enough. My initial research was to examine the non-investigative nature of the tech coverage and the influence of corporate PR.

But that was relevant to (what I call) "the Pre-Techlash era" when the coverage focused on product launch and was mainly positive. But then, the coverage shifted to mounting criticism of Big Tech. So, like any good start-up, I needed to pivot. The research data forced me to. And by research data, I mean, I used an AI-Media monitoring tool (by MIT and Harvard) and done content analyses. The picture that I got was so different that it shifted my analyses to the tech scandals and crisis communication. So, not just the roots of the change that I documented, but also the tech companies' PR efforts, how they defend themselves. 

On top of that, I added in-depth interviews with leading tech journalists and PR professionals to get the broader meaning of the Techlash. I had amazing access. They were very open and honest that it really provided the "inside story" of this dramatic shift in coverage. Since I had so much information about this evolving battle between tech journalism and tech PR, I pitched it to an academic publisher, hoping that it would result in a book and I got the contract.


"Journalists said the optimistic things out loud and whispered the dystopian remarks. The Techlash reversed this formula"


Lance: It really is an in-depth review, so fascinating read, for sure. Nirit, can we start with the basics? Could you explain the two terms - tech-utopianism and tech-dystopia? And what does it mean to live in tech-dystopianism?

Nirit: Sure. I think it's key. Thank you. I think the historical background is crucial here. For decades, Silicon Valley's key players had this blind faith in the inherent good of computers and technology. Tech journalists helped romanticize the early Internet. The digital revolution "would bring an era of prosperity." When your mindset is this tech-optimism, you believe that technology exists to make things better: It is a means to an end with the goal of improving. So, in criticizing technology, criticism seems to be against innovation, against progress. So, how dare you?

When your mindset is tech-pessimism, you believe the tech companies are villains who harm society; the criticism is legit and long overdue. So, looking at the tech media coverage, journalists said the optimistic things out loud and whispered the dystopian remarks. The Techlash reversed this formula. We experienced this huge shift in culture.

I think it happened, in part, due to the failure to live up to some of those more grandiose predictions we had about tech's impact. So, I think it's the sense of disappointment of tech innovations not fulfilling all of their huge promises. You have inflated expectations, and then they crash down. And as you said, Lance, we are now living in this phase now.


"The current Techlash is much more serious than in past episodes"


Lance: I just looked at the definition of dystopia: "an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic." Is that what you are seeing from a lot of tech companies? The fear that they are going to dominant, and there are going to be four companies that are going to control everything, and you need to break them up. Is that kind of what you were talking about there with the dystopian feelings?

Nirit: Yeah. I think you are talking about fear of being unsafe, destroyed morals, tech will hurt jobs, and harm children, and lead to a lot of ills. I think we had those fears throughout history, with every new technology, and those technologies including the telegraph, and those things were said about the Walkman. But the current Techlash is much more serious than in past episodes.

One of the reasons I think we see those fears, like bigger now, is the tech companies' scale and bigness. Like you mentioned, we want to break them up. They all started as start-ups, and now they are the establishment, involved in every aspect of our lives. And it's scary, right? I think, generally, if people feel that companies have gotten too big, too powerful, too rich, that in itself creates a backlash.


"It wasn't just the post-election reckoning, but it was also many issues at once that 'broke the camel's back'"


Lance: Absolutely. Reading your book (I loved all your charts and everything), it seems to be that 2017 was quite a critical year in this whole process. What kind of things happened in 2017?

Nirit: What I saw when I analyzed the tech coverage of 2017, the big stories, the major peaks of coverage in the companies' timelines, were negative. So, various tech scandals. It was a turning point because in all the years beforehand, the major peaks of coverage (in their timeline) were positive - as I said, the product launch and business reporting of their IPO, or M&As, and things like that. So, that was a noticeable shift, which I saw in the data.

The major event that caused this snowball thing to happen was actually at the end of 2016. So, in November, Donald Trump became the president. And the media blamed the tech platforms for widespread misinformation and disinformation. When I asked the leading tech journalists what was the story that formed the Techlash, they all answered, in one way or the other, that it was the election of Donald Trump. The way they phrased it was, "OK, it wasn't the story that we wrote about the most, but it was the underlying theme of everything we said about the tech companies."

Then, new revelations regarding the Russian interference with the U.S. election evolved into this bigger story during 2017. Micro-targeting advertising became this force of evil. We had the hearings in Congress at the end of 2017.

On top of that, we had the accumulation of issues that blow up during this year. Because it wasn't just the post-election reckoning (amongst tech journalists and tech workers), but it was also many issues at once that 'broke the camel's back.'

We had various cases of extremist content and hate speech, like the fake news around the Las Vegas shooting, which was a shock to many, and major cyberattacks like "WannaCry" or data breaches, like we had in Equifax, it all raised the alarm about data privacy and data protection; But we also had allegations of an anti-diversity, sexual harassment, and discrimination culture. It was in February 2017 that Susan Fowler published her revelations against Uber, and it was before the #MeToo movement. Already back then, it symbolized the toxicity in Silicon Valley. I think all those time-bombs started to detonate at once. So, that was like the year of the shift.


"We are now witnessing even more political pushback around the core issues of the Techlash, such as content moderation, disinformation, data rights, antitrust, and monopoly power"


Lance: That is true. And it is amazing how many things, like you said, and you mention quite a few more in the book, I think, all started to happen around that year, which is quite incredible. And then, you mentioned in one of your previous answers about the fear that people have around Big Tech, and you said it is like a threat to values, to safety, to the interests of the community. Can you talk to us about how that came across in your book? How are people thinking about Big Tech as a threat?

Nirit: Sure. Well, I'm a communication researcher. So, I'm less into the public fears that you mentioned and more (into) the media depiction of those fears. And, you know (you read the book), the media set the narrative. And the current framing is "Big tech is a threat." They used to be "saviors" and moved to "threats."

I think it is understandable why journalists would want to focus on finding Big Tech's misdeeds, as they frequently happen. But more broadly, I think the stories that people remember the most, and the ones that truly change the world for the better, are often the ones that reveal wrongdoing and put a stop to it. This is why I think we see more and more of those negative exposés/revelations and more journalists doing investigative reporting to have us all safer from what seems to be an attack on our privacy and other issues. That is one part of the fear game.

The second thing, I think, additional players here are the politicians. Because we are now witnessing even more political pushback around the core issues of the Techlash, such as content moderation, disinformation, data rights, antitrust, and monopoly power. Those are all issues that we see in the U.S. that are under investigation. And when regulators are trying to have their impact here, the media covers it, and it makes the story even bigger. It gives that justification to even focusing more on those issues.  


Lance: "little bit of chinks in the Apple Armor"


Lance: I agree. And it is amazing to me that companies like Apple, Apple was always like a revered company that could do nothing wrong. The golden child, like amazing company. And then, all of a sudden, like a year, maybe 18 months ago, there was all these little things creeping, and maybe they're not as good/ maybe they are exploiting people/ maybe they are dominating the market. So, you just see a little bit of chinks in the Apple armor. It's interesting to see, and that was happening with a few of them as well, like Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg, addiction for children, all those kinds of things.


"If we find out about the suicides at Foxconn today, it will get much more media coverage and scrutiny"


Nirit: Yeah. I think I have an example in the book, when I'm showing 2012, the major peaks of coverage with Apple were its product launch like the new iPhone, iPad, iOS (and all the rest). They had, already back then, the Foxconn suicides. It was a huge scandal in my mind of all the suicides over there. But I needed to find it in the data, like in the graph. It was such a small peak of coverage. I mean, all the rest of their stories got so much more, like thousands more articles and posts in traditional media and tech blogs, that what I thought was a big deal wasn't a big deal in their yearly timeline. Meaning: even though they had negative stories, they didn't stick. They had few days of not a lot of coverage, and the scandal is behind them. What I think is different now is if we find out about the suicides at Foxconn today, it will get much more media coverage and scrutiny.


"Tech PR Template for Crises"


Lance: Yeah. Because they are not as protected as they once were. People don't idealize them as much as they used to. Your book is called "The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication." It was very interesting to read that section as well. That was chapter three. And I was drawn to the "Tech PR template for crises," and you say it is being used repeatedly. Would you possibly, and I know it is giving away secrets of your book, but could you take us through an outline of how the tech PR template looks like? And maybe we can identify if we've seen it before?

Nirit: Sure. Gladly. I'm putting it out there for free. When I analyzed the tech companies' crisis responses, I had different companies and a variety of negative stories (as we said), and yet, the PR responses were very much alike. The companies rolled out the same playbook. Over and over again. Like copy-paste, copy-paste, and I just documented it. And then, I grouped all the sentences into three main themes.

The first narrative is (what I call) the victim–villain framing: Many responses praise the companies' strict policies alongside "we had good intentions" and "past good deeds," and here's the list of all the good things we've done successfully in the past. And then, it was usually combined with scapegoating to shift the blame towards others. So, the basic accusation documented is of misuses/manipulations that have been done by bad actors. The companies tend to use this strategy to claim they are victims of the crisis as well, to emphasize their suffering. "We are good" and "an unfair victim of some malicious, outside entity." So, that's the first thing.

The second thing is: everybody remembers the "apology tours," right? So, I call them pseudo-apologies: Many responses include different messages of "we apologize," "deeply regret," "ask for forgiveness." But they are actually pseudo-apologies because they try, at the same time, the same statement, to minimize the severity of the offense or express sympathy without taking responsibility, and all the elements I identified in number one, trying to shift the blame. So, it's not a true apology, right? It can't work.

Then, there's the "we need to do better" statement. I needed to call the book that name, "we need to do better"… my mistake. So, it usually comes in this order: "While we've made good/steady progress/ made some strides," à "we have much more work to do," à and "we know we need to do better." I think almost every statement has this closure.

Lastly, we have the Corrective Action Messages: Many responses include immediate actions to fix the issues and future improvements to prevent their recurrence. It is actually "Crisis Communication 101." You have to have those corrective action messages. However, in the case of the tech companies, their crises happened repeatedly. So, they started adding, "But our work will never be done." This is not "Crisis Communication 101." Because usually, you are being advised to say, "I'm going to fix it," "this is how I'm going to fix it," and just leave me alone, right? Let the news cycle move on to the next thing. But saying "our work will never be done" is a very unique acknowledgment here, in tech, that some of the problems are too complicated to fix, to be solved. It was very interesting to see this statement because I think it encapsulates Big Tech's never-ending challenge.


"The critics argued that tech companies need to stop taking the role of the victim, stop blaming others"


Now, one way to look at this PR template is to say: "Well, of course, that this is their messaging. They are being asked to stop big, difficult societal problems, and that is an impossible request." So, they need to put out those messages.

But in reality, all of those Techlash responses backlashed. The critics argued that tech companies need to stop taking the role of the victim, stop blaming others. "Don't ask for forgiveness; ask for permission." Or in other cases, it was "your actions should follow your words." Even after the companies specified their corrective actions, the critics claimed the companies now "ignore the system." It is a different type of criticism. Because now you have no incentive for dramatic changes, like your business models. And in such cases, when the media push for fundamental changes, again and again, that PR playbook won't help you.


"The distrust is remarkably bipartisan … But for totally different reasons"


Lance: And this leads us to chapter four, which is about the Techlash issues. I suppose that if you repeat your apologies so many times, that I guess people start to lose trust in you. And you highlight trust within your chapter there. Can you talk to us about a few areas and stats that you have in this section around trust? I found it very interesting.

Nirit: Oh, thank you! I think that what the book shows is the accumulation of all those tech scandals generated a decline in trust, specifically Big Tech. So, I collected plenty of surveys about this issue and just chose a few examples for this section.

I think the main concerns are our personal information, misinformation and hate speech, polarization, and the companies' monopoly power. When it comes to trust with our personal information, Facebook is getting the worst results, by far, consistently, compared with the other tech companies. Another thing that came up is that specifically around social media, the distrust is remarkably bipartisan. I'm showing that there is an equal percentage of distrust among Republicans and Democrats. But for totally different reasons, which is interesting.

Overall, the interesting thing about trust (I think I wrote it in the book) is that it takes years to build, seconds to destroy, and forever to repair. The companies have a long work ahead of them.

Though, I might add that I also documented other results that can give them some hope because we still have a few results that point to optimistic views: That the Internet users see the platforms as more "net positive" to their world or their lives than "net negative," on balance - when you ask them that way, broader picture. So, I think we have those surveys as well. Even a few weeks ago, or months ago, it was at "The Verge." They had the same results of huge optimism about the "net positive" of tech platforms to the world. It was surprising.


Lance: Yeah. I think COVID has been obviously really good for them. They've benefited from COVID, all the big tech companies.

Nirit: I think most people just use the products and don't think about all the harms. Because they are not reading the tech news daily, hourly (like me), they just enjoy using it. So, they don't have this critical thinking about those tools.


"That is their nature, growth-at-all-costs"


Lance: Yeah. Nirit, I'm going to jump to the last part of your book, which is called "the Post-Techlash era." If possible, and this is tricky, I'm going to ask you to look into your crystal ball, maybe trying to look into the future, if you could. What do you think is the future for Big Tech? Do you think they are going to continue to get bigger and dominate our lives more? Grow in revenue? Or do you think they are going to be broken up? Or are they even going to acquire each other? Are they going to go from five big companies to two big companies? What do you think their future looks like?

Nirit: Unfortunately, I don't have this crystal ball. But if I need to predict, then Big Tech is only getting stronger. We see it. I think they won't be broken up any time soon. But I think they will be more careful with some of the acquisitions due to the growing wave of antitrust scrutiny. But, at the same time, they would continue exploring new areas of expansion. Because that is their nature, growth-at-all-costs. 


"I know I have a lot of experience and knowledge to bring to the table; I'm not sure yet where that table would be"


Lance: Can I talk to you about you for a moment? Maybe your plans for 2021? I see you have a blog, a website Can you talk to us a bit about your presence on the Internet, where people can find you? And what are your plans for the rest of the year?

Nirit: Sure. My plan now is to promote the book. I hope that it would reach not only researchers and students (it's an academic publisher) but also tech industry professionals, both in tech journalism and tech PR. I mean, it's their story that I'm telling, so I hope they will find it useful. So, that's like mission number one.

Career-wise, I think I've proven to be agile. I pivoted from tech public relations, consulting tech companies, to tech journalism, covering innovation, to academic scholar, doing comprehensive analyses of the tech field and the Techlash. I think the best thing to do, moving forward, which I didn't figure out yet, but I think it would be to utilize my tech expertise, which I've built for two decades, but I'm still young. I know I have a lot of experience and knowledge to bring to the table; I'm not sure yet where that table would be. But I'm open to my next adventure.


Lance: Are you quite active on Twitter? Nirit: No. Actually, I just re-joined Twitter after a long-long break. My new account there is DrTechlash. Sometimes, I publish my thoughts on the tech news of the day. But actually, seeing my writing is (as you said) in the blog, and I have my posts over there. It's more long-form. And you could also find me on LinkedIn or Facebook under "Nirit Weiss-Blatt, Ph.D." And, of course,, the website about the book with more information.

Lance: Nirit, thank you so much for joining me. I really appreciate it taking the time, and I thoroughly enjoyed your book. I encourage everyone to read it since it gives you a really full-rounded view of the situation we are in today. Nirit: Thank you. That was a pleasure.

Lance: So, just to remind, we've been speaking with Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt, and her book is "The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communication." And you can read it for the PR template amongst other things, and all the information there, lots and lots and lots of it. So, I hope you, the listener, found this as interesting and useful as I did … I'm looking forward to seeing the great adventure that awaits you. 


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