2017: The year in review

It is that time of year again where we look back on what has passed and contemplate what lies ahead. 2017 has certainly proved to be a memorable one. In this two-part blog series, I want to take a look at some of the key trends that influenced the world of communications and technology this year, and think about some of the issues which will likely dominate the headlines in the year ahead.

Fake news

If there is one term synonymous with 2017, it has to be “fake news.” While politicians have used it as a rallying cry to discredit unfavorable media coverage, the fact is we now know that fake news and propaganda played a role in the 2016 election. We also know that politically motivated actors strategically used platforms such as Twitter and Facebook to bombard swing voters with slanted stories and, in many cases, outright lies. The fallout from this is that for the first time technology giants – or more specifically, media giants – such as Facebook and Google are now under intense pressure to tackle the issue. However, there is a delicate balance to be struck between maintaining open platforms of communication and curbing content that is blatantly false or incendiary. While there are signs that Silicon Valley is facing some sort of regulatory reckoning with regard to this issue, how and when remains unclear. What we do know, however, is that consumers of information are now increasingly skeptical of the content on these platforms, and the concepts of “fact” and “truth” are viewed as subjective by some.

Sexism

2017 was dominated by stories of sexual harassment and sexual assault – in every industry. Susan Fowler’s now legendary blog post  on her brief tenure at Uber proved to be a catalyst for a larger discussion on sexism in the technology industry, where a fixation on growth and valuation allowed poor workplace practices to run amok. Later in the year, the focus turned to the entertainment industry with the fall of Harvey Weinstein. And momentum has only grown. While 2017 proved to be the year these stories were exposed, how that translates into a change in policy and practices remains to be seen. What is clear is that companies of all sizes are now under a new level of scrutiny. From a PR perspective, everything from the language used in internal communications to the tone and style of marketing campaigns to the representation of women in leadership roles is being judged through a different lens.

Silicon Valley loses it sheen

If there is one story that dominated the Silicon Valley scene this year, it was the tumultuous fall of Travis Kalanick, former CEO of Uber. As a quick reminder, the company kicked off the year caught in the cross-hairs of the Trump administration’s executive order on immigration. In response, the #DeleteUber campaign spread like wildfire, with over 200,000 customers deleting their accounts in just a few days. Just as the dust settled, Susan Fowler posted her blog describing a toxic culture of sexism, hyper-aggressiveness, and a complete absence of leadership at the company. The allegations just snowballed from there. Kalanick was eventually ousted. But the issues kept coming, particularly with regulators. In September, the company lost its operating license in London, and just this month the European Court of Justice declared the company is a transportation service – not a technology company – and therefore liable to transportation laws. Let’s be clear, Uber is still a hot commodity, but one that looks far less invincible that just 12 months ago. This changing sentiment reflects a broader disillusionment with the technology industry as a whole, where exponential growth appears to benefit the privileged few and where workers’ rights are sidelined. The tide of public sentiment has turned and for those in the technology – and the PR – industry it is important to take notice.

Reading the above, it would be easy to view the year’s trends as one depressing story after another, but I think these developments point to an industry on the verge of a tipping point to maturity. Fake news, sexism and Silicon Valley excess all reflect the tumultuous period of change we have experienced since the advent of the internet (although sexism has been around a bit longer than that!). Because businesses grew so fast and innovation took place at lightning speed, it was inevitable that we would face a reckoning at some point. I, for one, believe there is a role for regulators in curbing the excesses of companies like Uber, and for forcing Facebook, Google et al to take more responsibility for the engines of information (and misinformation) they have created. Perhaps we will emerge from 2017 with new standards in place that will tackle these issues once and for all. (Twitter’s recent move to actively crack down on incendiary content is a promising sign.)

 In part 2 of this series, I will take a look ahead at the trends that I think will influence PR in 2018.