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Intro

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Niki: 

 

I’m Niki Christoff, and welcome to Tech’ed Up.  Today’s guest is Nirit Weiss-Blatt, an academic who uses AI-powered media monitoring tools to analyze coverage of Big Tech. We discuss how the tech industry fell from grace, from media darling to lead villain. The conversation spends some time focused on Uber circa 2017, a year in which I personally warmed my hands on a PR dumpster fire…and how the company has come out of that spiral. 

 

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Transcript 

 

Niki: Today's episode, we're talking to Nirit Weiss-Blatt. She has just published a book called The Techlash and Tech Crisis Communications. She's joining us remotely from California. Welcome, Nirit.

Nirit: Hi, glad to be here. Thank you for having me. 

Niki: Why don't you tell me a little bit about where you are, and how you ended up writing this book, a little bit about your background?

Nirit: Oh, thank you. Yeah. So, now I'm in Cupertino next to the spaceship. Most of my life, I lived in Israel, and I've been working there in tech journalism since 2005. So, 17 years ago, at first as a tech PR professional and then switched sides to be a tech journalist. And when I was the deputy editor of a tech news site and finished my master's degree in communication and political science, I looked for academic studies on tech coverage and discovered a significant gap.

Like, there was no in-depth empirical study about the interplay between tech journalism and tech PR. So, with my background in both, I decided to investigate myself. So, in my PhD in communication, I examined who sets the tech media agenda. I used an AI-powered media monitoring tool, and I focused on Big Tech and retrieved more than a quarter of a million articles. And the data captured the emerging techlash.

Niki: I think it might be obvious, but so “techlash” is a combination of technology and backlash, which is the moment we're currently in.

When I started my career at Google in 2007, doing tech public relations, which I didn't have a background in. I was a lawyer, I'd worked in politics, I'd done policy work, and I was hired by Google to work on their quote “green PR” [Nirit: Hmm], and you couldn't get a negative headline.

We really never got negative press. Everything was fuzzy bunnies. I ended up taking the Green Energy Czar up onto our solar installation, which was the largest in North America, and it was, I think, above the fold on A1 of the New York Times. Fast forward to today, where I'm a consultant, and I still work with tech companies, but it's, it's a barrel fire. [chuckles] 

It's not even a dumpster fire. [Nirit: chuckles] It's like, we've intentionally, the media is lighting the industry on fire [chuckling] and burning it. And it couldn't be more different. And so, your research studies that arc and what happened. And s,o I'm curious, let's start with the causes. What do you think has caused this techlash? 

Nirit: 2017,  I should start with that, is the year of the turning point. So, this is when Big Tech became the villain, as you said. I think that the coverage, and again, I'm looking at big data and then content analysis. So, in a typical pre-techlash year, like, the big, the company's peaks of coverage, like, in their yearly timeline, their main stories, main headlines were, either those good initiatives, product launches and, business reporting. 

So, like the new iPhone and IPO and the things like that. And the negative stories drew considerably less coverage. They were just not visible in the graphs. And what I saw when I analyzed 2017 was that the big stories in the coverage were totally different, very negative, with a lot of tech scandals. So, like, the magnitude of this shift was stunning. 

I conducted in-depth interviews with key players of the techlash. So, tech PR executives from global PR agencies and, gladly, an impressive list of leading tech journalists. Like the tech editors of Reuters, Tech Crunch, the New York Times, and Wired. And together, they illuminated the inside story of the techlash what you asked, like, the underlying causes. And they were really open and said on the record that what formed the techlash was the election of Donald Trump. They actually said that/ [chuckles]  Like there were  pivotal moments the post-presidential election and the belief that micro-targeting advertising was to blame for his victory.

 

Niki: For those who follow the tech industry closely, I, you interviewed Kara Swisher, you interviewed Casey Newton, people who are editors and writers and observers of the tech industry for the last 20 years. And by the way, you were on Mike Masnick’s podcast, which I highly recommend  [Nirit: Yes!]  if only so people can hear his amazing intro song, which I had not heard [chuckling] until I listened to your appearance on his podcast. It's a banger. [Nirit: laughs] Like a nerd banger. It's worth a listen.[Nirit: It is!]  But you've talked to the; you actually had extraordinary interviews with people who had a front row seat.

And I think that the election of Donald Trump was, as someone who, I have always been on the side of the net, where I am working with the tech companies to tell their stories and to effectively manage press, people loved micro-targeting when it helped get President Obama elected. The makeup of the people who work in tech, largely, are progressive liberal. They tend to give, I mean, there's a lot of analysis of the political giving of those who work at tech companies, was not aligned with the, with the outcome of the election. And then, I think it was worsened by Mark Zuckerberg, pretending that Facebook had nothing to do with the outcome of the election.

It's interesting that your dataset showed that that was a pivotal moment, but I think it was in the works for a while. It just finally, there was an outcome [Nirit: yes]  that felt unacceptable, I think, even to people with, within the companies. And when you have employees leaking against the company, it makes your press coverage much worse.

Nirit: Yes. I think there was a sentence in tech that I'm going to butcher it, but it's like things change gradually and then suddenly. So, yes, we had a buildup for years, and of course, the Brexit referendum was, again, an event that the media blamed social media for that.  But, I think 2017 delivered so many different shit-shows [chuckles] that I detail in the book that it wasn't just Donald Trump. It's like the easy answer, but it was people realizing the immense power those big tech platforms have, and that intensified the backlash.

Niki: [interrupts] So, 2017 was an epic year, as you said, for tech shit shows. And I think there's this thread to pull on where a lot of people love the tech itself but hate the companies. They love the tech and loathe the companies. And I found this especially to be true; we should talk for a minute about Uber, which you highlight. 

I was at Uber working on their communications response during 2017, which was an epically bad year currently being featured on Showtime's series, Super Pumped [laughing] [Nirit: Super Pumped, yeah!] [both chuckling], which was based on a book by Mike Isaac, who was our beat reporter. He covered Uber for the New York Times. But Uber is an example where people loved and still love the product but hated the company.

Nirit: 2017, as I said, was a scandalous year, but for Uber specifically, it was the most scandalous year in its existence. [chuckling]  So, if with Facebook we can say things evolve from bad to worse, with Uber, it really improved since then. So, that was the year where everything was disastrous, and then it improved.

As you can see, in Super Pumped, the Travis Kalanick played an important role in the Uber scandals. So, under his leadership, we had different negative stories, like every month. So the data sets, my graphs were just going crazy [chuckling] with so many negative stories that I needed to see,  “Right, we have a peek at coverage. Oh, three different scandals in Uber this month”. So, of course, we had Susan Fowler alleged a culture of sexual harassment and discrimination. Uber was caught deceiving law enforcement with a fake version of itself, a software called Greyball. We had allegations of them spying on Lyft using a secret software called Hell. And they didn't deny it.

Like, all the articles I collected about it said that Uber was not available for comment. So, there's just a few examples of how, or maybe why Travis Kalanick was blamed for disregarding rules and norms. And then, they brought Dara from Expedia; he’s a new CEO. Experienced, more adult, a responsible guy to lead the change. And I think it was desirable that he said, “Yes, we have parts of our organizations that are broken, and we're going to make sure they are fixed.” And then he does it.  Uber is not the scandal machine anymore.  In the end, actions speak louder than words. 

Niki: [interrupts] I think that is exactly right. Actions speak louder than words. And again, as someone who's been a public relations professional in a lot of these meetings, you can only do so much to fix a problem. If there isn't an actual product solution, or a change to policies or a change, sometimes the fundamental issue might be in the business model.

Amazon's a good example of that. You don’t get cheap things delivered glob- y’know, from, if you want to shop local, you're going to have a very different experience. So, sometimes it's just baked into the business model. Uber is interesting to me, and I don't think I have Stockholm syndrome. I'm about to describe Stockholm syndrome. 

I don't think Stockholm syndrome-

[both laugh] 

But I get really defensive about Uber and that year, and even Travis Kalanick a little bit. So, I was hired to expand, professionalize, grow the Washington D.C. federal government relations team, basically the lobbying shop. But because my background for the previous, almost ten years, had been in crisis communications, that first Susan Fowler story, I was asked to fly to San Francisco, and then I spent the next seven months [chuckling] doing crisis PR and yelling at Mike Isaac on the phone about his stories being iterative. And so on, right?

That's your job is to have conversations with the people covering you, but I never defended the indefensible. If something was accurate, we wouldn't push back on it, but it became hard to control the [pause] momentum of the stories. We couldn't catch a break, even when we were doing a lot of really positive things. You just could not get a positive story. 

I had a great team. It was one of the best policy and communications teams on the planet. It still is! It's a world-class team! And yet, we could not get out of our own way because we had a total deficit of goodwill going into that first domino, which was Susan Fowler. And actually, that wasn't the first domino. The first domino was Travis being on President Trump's Business Council, which was something I advised him to do. Which is one of which was a huge mistake in hindsight but at the time, Disney was on it, GM was on it, Pepsi was on it. It didn't seem controversial, but if you're a company with no goodwill, any domino starts a trend, and you can't get goodwill while you're in the middle of the spiral.

Nirit: People don't even remember the “Delete Uber” story, like what was behind it, but it was actually Uber offering rides while the taxi drivers were protesting Trump. 

Niki: When you're inside these companies [Nirit: mm-hmm], you know that the intention was to make sure we didn't have surge pricing for people going to protests. But, of course, then it was seen as anti-taxi and anti-labor,  [Nirit: hmm] so this goes to something I think is interesting. And I really would like your thoughts on, which is, how the companies respond to things because sometimes you just are in this death spiral where you're damned if you do and damned if you don’t.

Nirit: I ran conference analysis and the tech companies’ press releases and analyzed how they defend themselves. And what I found was just the repetition of specific themes over and over again; it was, like, astonishing. Like, the responses were very much alike, no matter the company, no matter the negative story. They all use the same PR playbook, and I called it in the book, the “Tech PR Template for Crisis”. 

So, they are always the victim of this bad malicious actors who manipulate or misuse their platforms. And they say, “Sorry,” and point out to you the good intentions, good works. Those are things that are, you know, crisis communication 101. And then, they added their unique sentences. Famous ones are, “While we've made steady progress, we have much more work to do, and we know we need to do better.” And then, they added, “But our work will never be done.”  Which is, is unique to tech companies. 

We are at a point when they're actually convinced time and again that the problems are too big to fix. So all those responses backlashed. So, it's not like they had like this magic wand and a specific statement that went well, all of the statements were not received [chuckles] well. The media said, “It's BS!” and “You don't take responsibility.” It didn't stop them from releasing those same statements again and again, and again. So, the repetition was exhausting, I think, for everybody. 

Niki: Obviously, there are best practices when it comes to a crisis, but when the entire industry is in a sustained multi-year period of negative press, that's not actually a crisis. That's just a completely, it's, it's the ocean you are swimming in is now boiling. And so, sometimes, and this, I felt this way a little bit at Uber. 

And I know, I'm bringing back, Uber back up. I didn't leave Uber because I didn't like my job; I left because the lifestyle of being always on when you're managing crisis comms, which is [chuckling] also not technically my job I was hired to do. It’s, it's a really brutal lifestyle. It's very difficult to sustain that level of engagement. You're on 24 hours a day, and you're dealing with things that are literally on the front page of the New York Times. So, it's extremely high-stakes. So, it's a, it's a difficult job, but I think that what we're looking at isn't, these aren't really crises anymore.

It's an industry under attack. And you think through other industries that have been in this moment, maybe the financial services industry after 2008, banks after 2008. Tech, I'm not sure exactly what the light at the end of the tunnel is going to be like from a communications perspective. But I'm curious if you think that there's anything communications-wise they can do to help right the ship. 

Nirit: First, I think there's a difference between the tech industry and the other industries you mentioned because, with tech companies, we had, like, tons of expectations. So, the fall from grace, from being, like, rockstars that you admire to people you scrutinize on a daily basis is, is quite unique. ‘Cause we had so much expectations, now it’s like a strong disappointment. 

Niki: [interrupts excitedly] That’s so smart! 

Nirit: We’re in a sentiment now that’s removed from tech companies are who save society. So, there's a lot to build to tech companies are evil who harm society, so there's a lot to fix. And the reality, of course, is somewhere in the middle. Right? It's hard to get any realistic narrative. 

So, under this attack, as you said, and they're in the boiling water, as you said, I think there, now just fighting harder. They're saying, “Okay. The pendulum has swung too far in the negative direction as if like we don't have, we can not, do no good, only harm,” while they see themselves as a good force in society. 

So, it became like we're just going to have our own solutions. They won’t be distracted by the outside criticism:  no more apology, only counter-attacks. And one of the reasons they fought harder now is the political pushback. Then we have this wave of tech regulation around the globe, a tsunami of bills. And some of them are frightening and potentially will take all, a lot of what is good on the web along with the bad.

I think their new messaging should be that, “Yes, we have a lot of problems, [chuckling] but they require a scalpel, not an ax.”

Niki: So, first of all, you're right. There's a tsunami of regulation tech is facing globally. And I think some of that is related to people's genuine frustration with the state of the world and seeing tech as a cause of that, as opposed to potentially a symptom of it. Right? So, the idea was it was going to be great to connect everyone on the planet.

[Nirit: mm-hmm] And I think it maybe was a terrible idea! I don't think it actually went that great. Connecting people anonymously by the billions has turned out to be deeply problematic when you look at social media. But also, I think our memories are short for how magical things are, the things that tech has done that are really positive.

So, I mean, Uber provides work for people who are in a period of unemployment. Washington D.C., where I live, has the highest number of hard-of-hearing drivers because that's a population that has a hard time finding any work. As a woman who had to flag down a taxi in the middle of the street at two in the morning [chuckles] until not even ten years ago, like, there are so many positive things about the technology.

And yet, we are upset about the low wages, and we're upset about what feels like an extractive model. And we're upset in general about, sometimes real things, but sometimes things we imagined to be the tech industry's fault. Right? And so, they're taking a lot of blame because people don't even hear the positive things that they're doing.

Nirit: If the media has any bias it's, it's pro-conflict: you need to have a hero and a villain. You need to be either, like, saviors or threats.

[crosstalk]

Niki: And a great, a great example is, another, like, wonderful investigative journalism exercise. I mean, Theranos and Bad Blood, and I'm currently watching The Dropout on Hulu, which I highly recommend. It's so watchable; it's great dialogue. It's a great soundtrack [Nirit: yes], but it's an, it's an example of this inflated heroine, who then she- talk about disappointing people, becomes a villain. 

Nirit: Well, Theranos is a unique story in history that I don't think is emblematic of, like, the tech industry or other tech startups. It was really just a, wow, crazy story!  But it is related to the cult of the tech founder, of how we, like, for decades, glorified them as geniuses. And then, again, the extreme to the other, you fall down hard.

Niki: [interrupts] When you work at a founder-led company, you work within a dictatorship. And so, depending on the thinness of the founder's skin, that will dictate how the PR team is approaching coverage. And you see a little bit more, not a little bit, a lot more of a tolerance for negative stories and sort of a reasoned approach to the press when you are looking at Microsoft, which right now is not led by a founder. When you look at Apple, which is not led by a founder, right?

 

These are companies where I think they're able to be a little bit more nuanced. But when the founder sees the company as an extension of their body, it's really hard for that person, who is, again, a dictator, to tolerate negative press. And so, you might be responding in a way that's counterproductive as a team. Not because the team doesn't think they should be doing something else, but you just don't have a choice. [Nirit: Right!]

We see it with Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. [chuckling]  Facebook is the ultimate, in my opinion, top of the villain, villain list. And do you have any thoughts on that? [Nirit: laughs] Do you have thoughts on, you mentioned Cambridge Analytica?

Nirit: When we had the exposé, Mark Zuckerberg was absent. So, that's like a great case study on how not to behave in the face of a major crisis. For five days, which feels like five years, government officials have summoned Zuckerberg to speak, journalists and his own employees have demanded to hear from him, but he's been absent. He didn't show up to the company's own internal staff meeting, and eventually, he published a Facebook post, of course. And then came, the “I'm extremely sorry. I'm extremely sorry.”  Now, look at crisis communication literature; the research found that the longer an organization takes to respond to a crisis, the more it suffers in the eyes of the public and stakeholders.

Now it's understandable that Mark needed to gather all the facts, [Niki: scoffs] most of the facts, about what happened before, y’know, issuing a detailed response. It takes time, but the initial crisis response should have been released using, as we said, the well-known PR playbook just to lower the flames of the fire and his disappearance was a total PR disaster. And it was perceived as a profound lack of accountability.

Niki: I mean, in Washington, his absence was almost palpable because Sheryl Sandberg would be sent out as the human shield, and she would say, and it was so jarring [Nirit: mm-hmm] to hear her say this, “I'm so sorry. And, I know, Mark is so sorry.” And you're thinking, “The CEO should be saying he's sorry. He shouldn't be sending Sheryl [chuckling] to say he's sorry.”  This is not an effective communications playbook, but it's, again, it's not because they don't have smart PR people. They have great PR people; it's that the decision isn't made by that team.

Okay. Let's fast forward to current events. So, we've addressed how it used to be in the heyday; it was bright shiny objects. And I don't think it, I, I remember reading in some of the excerpts from your book that people thought it was like a celebrification of these founders. And maybe there was a bit of that, but also, we were getting magical tools on a quarterly basis. 

But let's take it to current events. [Nirit: chuckles] [Nirit: Sure]  What do you think is, what's the current state of play?

Nirit: So, just before handing my book over, COVID hits. So, I managed to add, like, the small chapter, I called it the shortest pause of the tech lash. It's like this short honeymoon phase at the beginning of the pandemic where everything, everybody was like, “We're thankful for the web” and “Thank God we have those inventions.”

And then, of course, the techlash resurfaced. And I think now we have the same thing with the Russian invasion. Being overwhelmed by the Russian invasion, how it played out online, I decided to sit down, and I'll find, like, the main themes I saw, both positive and negative. And we had positive, so again, that’s noteworthy [chuckles] ‘Cause there were actually a few solid positive narratives and the negatives are obvious: people calling out social media for, like, fueling a new type of fog of war where information and disinformation are continuously entangled with each other, clarifying and confusing, y’know, in almost equal measure; and Russia government restricting access to online services, of course, intensified everything. 

It's a serious thing that it continues to splinter the open internet. So, people started to point out, like, the importance of end-to-end encrypted messaging apps. And at the start, people were calling it “The First TikTok War. “ When in fact, it evolved into a “WhatsApp War” where people have no choice now but to rely on WhatsApp, where people have no choice to rely on Signal or Telegram and be thankful that they exist. Right?

So, we have positive aspects about that but also about just, y’know, regular people debunking falsehoods in real time, a wave of global protests, huge donations, empathy. And all of this relies on, like, good uses, not misuses of the web. So, I think it's a point of time when we can see a more balanced coverage [Niki: ok], I think, for the tech platforms. It's, like, way better and way worse at the same time, ‘cause we have gratitude for their inventions. Like, they help civilians now cope with this war, but at the same time we realize their immense power. 

Niki: The platforms are not good or bad. What we do with them, how we choose to engage with them; I think that you're right; this highlights that dichotomy that it is both good and bad. We are totally reliant upon the platforms, and also they are a lifeline. There is this ray of seeing exactly what they were good for. And this isn't the first time the Arab Spring, it's just reminiscent. Right? You say this “It's Groundhog Day.” That's something you've said in tech, is it's Groundhog day. Once again, we see people suffering who are using these tools in a very positive way. 

So, the pendulum, it will swing- maybe we’ll end with me being an apologist, and then we'll give you something as a final word. But I worry a bit. You mentioned conflict and how the press is driven by conflict. It concerns me a little bit that reporters [interrupts self], and they have to, right? So, when I started in tech, you could be a reporter and make a great living, and you didn't have to post on Twitter all day long and try to get clicks for your articles. It was, you had more time, more breathing room to write your stories, and you weren't competing with non-journalists, right? You weren't competing with influencers who don't really follow the rules of journalism and standards of practice of editing. And so now, you're in this race, right, rate almost, I would say, race to the bottom of speed and clickability. 

And I'm concerned that a lot of the big book deals and the books being turned into movies, although I want that for my friends who are reporters, and I think they should be able- it's important that you can make a living, being an investigative journalist and a reporter- it concerns me that it's going to put a bounty on more difficult coverage. That, at the end of the day, can create an outcome we don't want because, again, these are for better or worse, these are American companies. They're public companies. They have rules of governance and rule of law. And a lot of what they're doing isn't illegal. It might just be immoral, or we don't like it.  And the alternative, which could be something coming out of autocratic states. We don't know what the alternative is, but I don't think we should have a lack of imagination for what the world could be like if we tie up the U.S. companies too much, I think it could be a dystopian future people aren't even thinking about. So, I'm a little thoughtful about putting too much gas on the barrel fire.

Nirit: I can't agree more. I mean the, the ending paragraph of my book, if you survive the 200 pages before that, then you will reach the end [chuckling]. So, what I say at the end is like this manifest of, “Okay, we had, we've been over-utopian, but we are clearly over-dystopian now. And we should seek a more nuanced discussion.” And not as I said, the over-simplistic solution who will, y’know, spill the baby with the bath water. Another term that I butchered, okay. [Niki: You did fine!]

[crosstalk]

[both laugh] 

Niki:  Nirit, Thank you so much for talking about this. Like, it's very hard for me to be objective because this has been my professional life since 2007, when I just sort of fell down, like, accidentally fell into doing tech PR. I wasn't in public relations before that, and I wasn’t, really, wasn't even interested in tech. 

And 15 years later, I've had a front row seat to watch this phenomenon. And I come out exactly where you are and you've looked at big data sets and you've written this academic assessment of the trends and talked to experts and really, hugely, influential people for your book. And you come to the same place that intuitively I come to, which is it's hard for us to have nuanced conversations and to have a nuanced perspective. But, but we must! 

Thank you so much for coming on and taking the time, and we'll link to your book in the show notes. 

Nirit: My pleasure. It's techlashbook.com

Outro: 

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Niki: Next week, we’re taking a break, and I’ll appear on the Unchained podcast to chat about how crypto can talk to Washington and win. We’ll be back after that. So, make sure you don’t miss an episode by following Tech’ed Up wherever you get your podcasts.