Managing the Bad Tech Narrative - The Case of Google

Last year, I was working at Google on Google+, and the outlook was grim. There were scores of editorials and blog posts discussing the imminent downfall of the search giant. The issue revolved around "social" -- and the anti-social nature of Google's technology. Google was going to fall to other search engines and Facebook or Quora as people started asking their friends for searches. Furthermore, without social data, Google's search engine wouldn't provide the personalized recommendations that consumers would soon demand, making Google's vaunted search algorithms useless.

Fast-forward to today. The doom is now directed toward Facebook over the issue of monetization. This week, Facebook and particularly Zynga were hammered for failing to meet market expectations, begetting a whole new debate over the actual utility of social.

These ebbs and flows in news coverage, particularly in tech journalism, are commonplace. But, in this case, careful PR management of Google was just as much to blame as the vanities of the press.

The high water mark for the coming Google apocalypse came on March 22, 2012 in a lengthy Gizmodo piece by Matt Honan called "The Case Against Google." In it, he takes the company to task for the kerfuffles related to privacy, and also zeroed in on Google's social problem. This piece generated a lot of attention, and the mainstream press began writing similar pieces as well. The coming death of Google seemed almost imminent.

Yet, less than two weeks later, the narrative would suddenly change on April 4 with the public unveiling of Google's Project Glass, their take on the classic imagined design of the augmented reality glasses. The announcement created a press storm and excitement like nothing that Google had really done in some time, capturing the imagination of readers in a way that editors love. Project Glass was the talk of journalism.

But Google didn't really stop there. More details were released about the autonomous cars that it had been building. The company lobbied the governments of California and Nevada to approve them, both of which quickly did so. The flurry of positive press stories continued.

Since that time, more details about both projects have been slowly leaked into the press, keeping Google's technology momentum story in the press. Sergey has been spotted wearing the Project Glass glasses, causing more flurries of commentary.

These events are not random. It's not hard to see how Google handled its PR narrative rewrite, but what is amazing is how few seemed to realize it. When Project Glass was announced, HackerNews was alight with commentary about the value of releasing product details before a product is ready to ship. Many seemed quite surprised at the sudden transparency. Yet, they shouldn't be. Google carefully unveiled its products at a crucial juncture for the company, when the press had begun to put the nails into the coffin of the colorful company.

Today, it is not Google that is nearing death -- instead, Google has almost turned into the Apple of the tech industry, with enthralling product demonstrations (heck, Apple never had parachuting augmented-reality-wearing jumpers land on a convention center before).

What should we take away? First, scale was crucial. Project Glass and the autonomous cars not only showed that Google had more life to live, it laughed directly in the face of the "anti-social" crowd. Google was almost saying "yeah, social in Google search sucks. Oh, by the way, we are about to fundamentally transform transportation for humans. We'll get around to that social thing sometime." Oh, and they were doing it with their middle fingers out as well. The scale difference is staggering. All the complaints about privacy, social, dying products were instantly vaporized. The complaints just seemed so ... small.

The second take away is timing. Google's introduction of Project Glass happened in the middle of the negative news cycle. In my mind, Google was being hit pretty hard -- the American press loves a falling giant. Personally, I felt that Google was approaching a serious inflection point where talent and money would start to head elsewhere, leaving the company in one of those horrible, slow death spirals. Instead, Google demonstrated its complete superiority to every other tech company, generating a coolness factor it hasn't enjoyed in some time.

Most companies would not have had as much success as Google. Google's PR team tapped into a more fundamental narrative of Google's rise that has been better known for a longer period of time. Few companies have the same asset. Nonetheless, the approach demonstrates the power of excellent PR. Many of my friends have started thinking about Google again as a place of employment, and they probably aren't the only ones. Reputation matters, and Google's approach to managing the bad tech narrative represents a case study of success.