Consumers’ relationship with technology has remained conflicted throughout the Covid pandemic, and tech firms are going to have to change the way they communicate in order to fix it, according to a panel of experts at PRovokeGlobal this week.

“Technology was framed as our savior, then the tech giants were positioned as a threat, then the pandemic started they were our saviors again, then it got messy,” said Dr. Nirit Weiss-Blatt (Ph.D.), a USC Center for Public Relations research fellow, in a discussion centred on how people are at once more reliant on connectivity than ever and wary of risks like privacy breaches and misinformation.

Speaking at a session on the state of techlash, Weiss-Blatt and fellow participants — Axicom Europe president Kate Stevens and IPSOS chief research officer Trent Ross — pointed to a range of factors fueling consumers’ continued suspicion of technology, despite video calling, online learning and working from home becoming mainstream since the onset of the coronavirus outbreak.

Ross outlined the issue: "There is a push-pull in terms of people’s reliance on technology – at the same time as some people say it solves their problems, others are concerned that technology companies have too much power.”

Stevens said some of this tension mistrust is rooted in the news cycle, both in terms of the way news outlets are covering tech stories, and a deficit in companies’ responses to them. Flawed translations of press releases, dehumanizing consumers by calling them “users” and the press focusing on the Big Four — Apple, Amazon, Facebook and Google — are all ripe for stoking public fear in technology, and the issues around it, Stevens said.

"Most of the stuff in the media is around politics and privacy. But if you look at how comms is responding to some of these issue, the crisis response tends to be in terms of what the media is writing about, when we should be focusing on reassuring  users,” Stevens said. "More needs to be done from a communications point of view to tell a more holistic story about big tech, and allow that dialogue.”

The tech industry also has lagged in providing the value of its practices, including data collection, in concrete ways: "No-one has been given clear examples of how their data is making a difference and that there is a clear, tangible benefit of allowing freedom of movement in a world with no vaccine,” Stevens said.

She also argued that the language used by technology companies was an associated issue: “Speaking to people like they are human is so important, and really doesn’t get done enough in big tech.”

Weiss-Blatt agreed that companies’ communications have played a role in fueling the public’s backlash against technology rather than allay it.

“When I analyzed the tech companies crisis communications, I found a template rolled out like the same playbook, with victim/villain framing, pseudo-apologies and scapegoating, and that’s where you get a backlash,” she said.