Controversial Tech: Navigating Awareness in Turbulent Times

Innovation comes in all shapes and sizes. It’s born from a need and later shaped into a product. But what should an organization do when that product creates controversy? 

When we say controversy, it does not mean that the technology does anything illegal or is unfit. It has value to a very specific audience that can impact the greater good, but the general public (and the media) take issue with the approach. 

Take facial recognition technology, for example. There is an uproar regarding its use by law enforcement today. Concerns about privacy, accuracy and racial bias dictate the current news narrative. On the flip side, there are cases where facial recognition technology has helped reunite a family by finding a missing person or streamlined the security process at airports (while making the experience more secure). Many people use facial recognition every day to access their phone, yet the stigma surrounding the technology remains jaded. 

So, how can ‘controversy tech’ brands navigate the turmoil successfully and reach their intended buyers without a flair up that could capsize the company? Here’s a phased approach, centered on reputation protection and management amid controversy, that we recommend for clients. 

Phase 1: prepare & protect

When an organization’s technology is under siege, it’s critical to revisit strategy and invest in messaging development. This should begin with insights into the market and the general brand sentiment. What conversations are driving the issues that matter to the target audience? Where are they happening and who is leading them? What’s triggering the controversy? How does that impact business? What are the value points that matter most to their target audience and what do we address for the influencers and decision makers in the buying process? 

Once you discover what’s at the core of the value proposition and the intersection of the controversy, then it’s time to prepare for the worst and hope for the best. This means intense and uncomfortable media training and a detailed crisis mitigation strategy. Communications leads must think of all the worst possible scenarios and develop responses/messages. And then we practice them with our spokespeople over and over again until they become second nature.

Phase 2: proceed with control

There are several ways for a company to drive awareness through a ‘controlled’ approach. They should test messaging and refine it to avoid reputational damage and showcase value. It’s also important to develop a robust corporate communications strategy out of the gate with a consistent news pipeline at the core. You can also layer in controlled earned media interactions (such as email Q&A’s) with press that are influential, but less likely to steer the story in a negative direction, and topics that are geared toward a safer narrative that speaks to innovation, the value of the technology or the general market. Finally, begin building positive brand association through a thought leadership campaign that includes a mix of earned and paid contributed content.

Phase 3: promote​

Proceed with caution, but there comes a time – once a company’s controversy dies down – that they must return to an aggressive communications strategy that will drive awareness and growth. This means approaching higher tier journalists and influencers with proactive corporate and product stories – prepared for challenging questions and with the understanding that interactions could be rocky. 

A corporate communications strategy in conjunction with a thought leadership campaign through earned and paid channels. The company should also explore other (paid) opportunities to amplify positive, on-message coverage as it appears to regain reputation and ensure those narratives reach their targets. 

Iron Mike Tyson once said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” When it comes to controversial technology, a company’s plan should be to get punched in the mouth but to make certain it’s in a position to get up off the canvas and keep fighting. 

In our experience, having a strong purpose is pointless without a solid reputational foundation. Planning and preparation are the keys to success when navigating turbulent times and challenging circumstances with technology that can be perceived as controversial. The truth is, many of these controversial technology companies deserve their time in the limelight, but they must continually keep themselves out of the shade.

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