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Our Responsibility as Technical Communicators

By Kacie Thomas, Account Director, and Gordie Hanrahan, VP

Rising mainstream awareness of technology industry inadequacies is making us reconsider what responsibilities we have as technology communicators.

As data quickly became the new oil and economic driver in the age of the internet, many underestimated its impact. Just in the past few years alone, we’ve seen countless data breaches across every variety of product and service, increasing clarity on Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and Facebook’s recent troubles managing Cambridge Analytica’s use of data. The list of instances grabbing the attention of mainstream communities is exploding and touching every aspect of society.

Today’s reality: even products and services that live deep in the datacenter are at risk for generating negative widespread attention.

At WE, we’re increasingly counseling our technology clients to communicate with mainstream audiences in mind. Although we’d never advocate for eliminating discussion of speeds and feeds — we love to nerd out with the best of them — we do see a new responsibility to counsel our clients to add technology messages to their broader company narratives that help link the datacenter to the values of the general public. This approach enables our clients to be better prepared to communicate about their technologies to all audiences in the event that their technologies gain mainstream attention.

How are we making this happen? Following are several approaches we’re using with clients to ensure that they’re best prepared to communicate when the discussions of their technologies extend from industry trade publications to the evening news and the tabloids:

Security Should be Part of Every Technology Strategy

After news hit that Facebook had exposed 50 million users’ data to Cambridge Analytica (now bumped up to 87 million users), broader conversations about the company’s violation of users’ privacy became a topic of discussion among mainstream audiences. A key takeaway that’s critical to consider in light of this and when you’re dealing with any third-party technology — you must always understand how that technology is secured. Don’t just assume this is top of mind for the developers. A niche, siloed approach to engineering is no longer a successful model, and as communicators, we often have a window into activity happening across different teams across an organization.

We need to look beyond our PR and marketing clients to have conversations with decision-makers responsible for privacy within the company. We can start by asking questions about why businesses are collecting and sharing data to ensure it’s being properly communicated.

Get Inside the Mind of an Engineer

In the era of the engineer, communications and PR degrees are nice and will teach you the professional blueprint, but they’re not enough to survive in today’s technology-driven environment. What does the average PR pro do when an engineer provides a summary of a highly technical project that they believe deserves mainstream attention? Too often, PR pros spend an eternity trying to understand what the technology does and how it ties to the broader company mission.

The reality is that we need to get into the trenches with our engineers to understand how exactly the technology functions and how it will be maintained responsibly before speaking publicly about it. This may require you to take computer science courses or speak with engineers like it’s your business outside of your day job, but it’s worth it and will make you a stronger communications professional, and your clients will reap the rewards.

Conduct a 360 Review of the Technology to Avoid Bias

Drinking (or in some cases chugging) the Kool-Aid is a phrase we communicators use to reference a group of folks unwilling to look beyond company walls, and therefore assuming what they have is the best there is because … well, they say so. And it’s a real thing. We need to design narratives that address the entire spectrum of the technology experience — process and product development as well as the impact on people.

This is also where industry analysts can be helpful. They can serve as a great resource to pretest narratives and messages. The goal is to ensure we have an unbiased understanding of the full technology impact.

Empower the Developer Ecosystem

Developers both within and outside company walls are the path to long-term business growth and success. This is why many companies are leveraging open source programs as a business function; these programs present a unique opportunity to engage outside minds to help solve critical coding challenges. We don’t want to lose the open and collaborative nature of the developer culture, so we need to ensure we help communicate on behalf of developer programs in a way that doesn’t hinder the creative process.

What will applying more scrutiny and contractual agreements to your developer programs do to those relationships? Developers need the freedom to explore security flaws through a white hat hacker approach and software issues through open sourced source code. As communicators of these brands, we should own a large part of the responsibility to ensure developers are empowered to bring in and share third-party code, while also understanding and communicating the potential risks of third-party tools.

Strike a Humble Tone

Self-serving, company-boasting narratives like “we’re the best because we’ve been doing this longer than anyone” just don’t work and will quickly lose respect from influencers and prospective customers.

In today’s environment, every single technology company narrative, no matter what business function you operate in, will be met with a high level of scrutiny and skepticism. Influencers, for example, are expressing a strong distaste (quite publicly) for communications strategies that lack proof and empathy toward how products may impact people and society at large, negatively.

As communicators of impactful brands, we hold great responsibility and need to understand not just our clients’ products, but the people and processes behind the scenes. By doing so, we have the opportunity to force deeper conversations that could help companies like Facebook think through their data policies before a crisis occurs.

April 10, 2018