Fixing the roof whilst the sun is shining – why tech companies need to act now to consolidate their post-covid political capital

By Alex Burchill, Account Manager

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the political reputation of the technology industry has been nothing short of astonishing, but companies should be wary of heralding a “new normal”

A change in Government attitude?
Before the crisis, techlash was in full swing. Fueled by concerns over issues such as election interference, privacy and security concerns, (lack of) platform moderation and D&I challenges, consumers and decision makers alike were demanding that the sector be reined in and fast.  Such was the level of negative feeling against the sector, that FH research found that 77% of Britons believed that technology companies should take more action to address the consequences of their actions.

Fast forward to now and that almost feels like it’s part of a bygone era. Whilst concerns remain – especially over diversity and inclusion – the fact of the matter is that in order to survive the pandemic, people are not only desperately dependent on what technology companies have built, they are glad that they’ve built it.

There is also a widespread acceptance that our embrace of technology is here to stay. Tech companies have not only helped us through the crisis, they will help us out of it, with innovations in vaccine production, COVID-19 testing and tracing and the continued development of virtual working platforms all seen as crucial to keeping the world turning.

With the above in mind, it is unsurprising that the pandemic has already caused political audiences to rethink their approach. Already, the European Union’s data strategy has been revisited due to worries about stymying companies from sharing public health information. And when it came to develop a COVID-19 contact-tracing app, the UK Government was one of a group of significant players that opted to make its own version—not because private sector developed software would do too little to protect individual privacy, but too much.

A permanent shift?
It is clear then that in a year that has been gloomy for most, the sun is shining on technology sector. However, although this is undoubtedly cause for optimism it is not a time for companies to rest on their laurels.

That is because whilst the reputational headwinds that have buffeted the sector since 2016 have subsided, the underlying conditions that caused them have not gone away. A study conducted in the UK after the introduction of lockdown measures by Dot Everyone demonstrated just this – with a majority of respondents confirming that they still harbour concerns, still think the industry is under-regulated and – crucially –still think that companies design products without society’s best interests in mind. This, combined with the fact that we are in the year of a US election where issues such as election fixing and regulation will once again rear their head means that any claims that we’re witnessing “the end of techlash” are naïve to the extreme.

Put simply, techlash hasn’t gone away, COVID-19 has just pressed the pause button. This has clear implications for public affairs professionals in the sector.

Get proactive with your political communications – fast

To seize the opportunity presented to them by this momentary pause, tech companies need to quickly get on the front foot to demonstrate their current and future value to policymakers. Whilst proactive political communication will not solve the sector’s problems overnight, it could go a way to rebalancing the debate ahead of a H2 that will pose a new raft of regulatory and reputational challenges.

Firstly – and most importantly – they need to craft a positive and clear narrative about their business, one that lucidly explains what it has done to help people through the crisis, why it has done so and what more it can offer. Time-poor politicians don’t have the capacity to decode jargon and contextless economic contribution numbers, they need businesses to get to the point fast.

Once they’ve done that, it’s simply case of telling that story to political influencers again and again in a range compelling and memorable ways. In a crowded marketplace, cut through can be hard to come by and so the old maxim of repetition=retention has never been more important.

Companies that do decide to get proactive fast will likely be rewarded, with decision makers more willing than ever to give the tech sector a fair hearing. This could prove vital for companies who want to have their voices heard by UK policymakers.

In contrast, those who don’t act do so at their own risk – for whilst the sun is shining now, it won’t be long before the rain returns.