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27.10.2020 By Lakshmi Rajendran, UK Director, Current Global

Why Tech Is The New Watergate

Two women in front of the White House reading about the Watergate scandal. It is the 1970s. The photograph is black and white.

Everyone knows what happened at the Watergate – right? Wrong. A (super scientific) straw poll of my closest friends and family revealed that almost nobody under a certain age (ahem) knows exactly what the Watergate scandal was about, apart from a vague sense that it had to do with politicians behaving badly. What they did all acknowledge is that we all now routinely attach the suffix ‘-gate’ to the end of anything we want to label a scandal.

Confession time: I also don’t know much of the detail around Watergate (under a certain age, remember?). But I do definitely use the same verbal tick of calling anything vaguely controversial Whatever-It-Is-gate (notably Tomatogate, when I recently discovered my beloved tomato plants are perennial and will die soon).

It led me to thinking about how a similar – though much less controversial – shorthand has descended on the technology industry. Healthtech, fintech, autotech, legaltech, agritech, martech, insurtech – name an industry and someone has almost certainly stuck the word tech on the end of it. And grammatical pedantry aside, there is a very good reason for this.

To paraphrase Satya Nadella, CEO of (Current Global client) Microsoft, today every company is a technology company. Every business, in every industry, is building its plans for growth and development on the foundation of technologically-driven efficiency, innovation and disruption. Understanding and investing in technology is the baseline for how they operate. For those of us who specialise in technology communications, this is a great opportunity to learn a lot more about a lot more. But it also means we may have to start thinking differently about how we do what we do.

White space can become a grey area – technology can make a real difference in the practicalities of how a business delivers value; but talking about technology is often anything but differentiating. What’s more, some days it’s still an uphill climb to get some technology companies to focus on talking about what good the tech does rather than just what the tech does. As we expand into vertical storytelling, it’s important to articulate how technology can drive the attitudes, actions and behaviours any given industry depends on – not just the time and money it can save.

Decision-making is a broad church – I recently spoke to the founder of an insurtech start-up who told me that he always takes at least three people into every sales pitch. He knows what the tech can do, another knows how the numbers will work and the third is an expert on the insurance industry. To successfully tell convincing technology stories in vertical contexts, we have to speak the language of that industry; articulating benefits in a way that makes sense to audiences that are not necessarily knowledgeable about tech but will play a big part in choosing it.

When worlds collide – the key characteristic of the technology industry is the pace at which it operates. You can use technology to do almost anything today – and if you can’t yet, you will be able to soon. This language, of infinite possibilities, is common in the technology industry – but it can come across as overwhelming or incredible elsewhere. Industries such as agriculture or insurance or even financial services have spent decades, if not centuries, establishing the fundamentals of what they do and how they do it. And while they’re certainly keen to see how technology can help them adapt to new challenges and opportunities, we have to meet them where they’re at and bring them to where we think they can be. From a campaigning perspective, it’s about showing that you understand where they’re coming from, not just telling them why they should do things differently.

Education, not just impact – in recent years, there’s been increasing pressure for thought leadership content to be more closely tied to business outcomes and sales pipelines. I’m not suggesting that’s wrong. But to my point earlier, there are audiences who don’t know what we know about cloud computing or artificial intelligence. Telling stories about how technology can and has made a meaningful contribution are always valuable; but you might well need to start a step earlier and do some explaining on how the technology works if you want the audience to trust its capabilities.

It takes a village – there’s always value in having a team of specialists on hand to create and execute the right comms strategy; but increasingly they need to be specialists in different things. As audiences, media landscapes and stakeholders blur the lines between technology and vertical industries, the comms team that supports them needs to bring a similarly blended set of knowledge and skills. For agencies, this means bringing together expertise from across multiple practices and disciplines to build teams that can give clients counsel based on the right mix of perspectives and experience.

Without wanting to state the obvious, unprecedented change – particularly in where the boundaries between one thing and another lie – is all around us. And the biggest opportunity presented by change, is the opportunity to change. If you haven’t already thought about treating every company like a technology company, now is as good a time as any to start.

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