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Fortune Brainstorm TECH 2017

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Communications Lessons From Fortune Brainstorm TECH

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I recently had the unique opportunity to attend Fortune Brainstorm TECH, a two-day event that brings together the world’s top business leaders, policymakers and industry experts to discuss the ideas and issues shaping the future of technology. In many ways, the conversations that take place at Brainstorm TECH help to set the global business agenda for years to come. For this reason, it’s important for those speaking and attending to come in with a solid communications plan. This includes clear and concise messaging around their company, vision and mission; a compelling narrative that can help them shape and inform conversations happening in their industry; and the tools needed to navigate tough questions and address issues head-on.

Thinking through a communications lens, there are a few lessons from the conference that I wanted to share:

Don’t be afraid to sit next to the competition, especially if you’re a startup.
To kick things off, Tim Kentley-Klay, CEO of Zoox, and Kyle Vogt, CEO of Cruise Automation, a subsidiary of GM, took the stage to talk about where their respective companies are in the race to make self-driving cars a reality. This might sound like a PR nightmare: Why would anybody put the top executives from two separate competing technology platforms on the same stage at the same time to discuss their plans to beat each other to market?

Turns out, this was a good idea for the executives and for the audience. The conversation naturally focused on topics and issues that unified—and differentiated—the companies. For example, their go-to-market strategies are completely different. Cruise, which was acquired by GM in 2016, is focused on timing; it sold itself to one of the world’s biggest auto manufacturers to accelerate its mission to get self-driving cars on the road as quickly as possible. Zoox, a privately-held company that’s still in stealth, would rather “get it right” than be first to market. Cruise plans to be on the market in six-to-12 months, while Zoox is aiming for a launch in 2020. The fundamental differences between these companies, combined with their joint desire to revolutionize the way people get around, made them a great pair to discuss the diverse market landscape.

Take a stand, especially on difficult issues.
There’s no shortage of news articles and stories surrounding diversity, gender equality and inclusion in tech. Niniane Wang, the founder of Evertoon, who recently worked to expose overt discrimination from Silicon Valley venture capitalist Justin Caldbeck, drew a large crowd of supporters to her town hall discussion. Wang mentioned that she’s received of praise for having courage and bravery but she reminded the crowd that hard work is what drove her. Wang then handed the mic over to New York Times reporter Katie Benner, who detailed her experience exposing the story.

In a packed room full of technology leaders, Wang and Benner called out how much work still needs to be done for the tech community to be inclusive. Many companies right now are still supportive allies on the sidelines, and companies need to make significant changes and be willing to put in the work to change subtleties of a system that reinforces inequality.

Great communicators come from surprising places
Until recently, I had not spent much time thinking about the wrestling entertainment industry, and I’d spent even less time thinking about whether women were fairly represented in a niche that is historically male-dominated. Both things changed at this year’s Fortune Brainstorm TECH, where Stephanie McMahon, chief brand officer of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc.*, led a powerful discussion on how social media led to the rebranding of its female professional wrestling division.

Previously, female wrestlers were referred to as “divas,” which was intended to be a nod to strong, independent women. Over time, WWE fans started to criticize the company for the way it portrayed female wrestlers. To gain the company’s attention, WWE fans united online, rallying around the hashtag #GiveDivasAChance, which trended worldwide for three days. WWE responded where the conversation was happening: on Twitter. From there, it dropped the term “diva” and debuted its rebranding at the company’s flagship Wrestlemania event in 2016. It was a lesson in framing that resonated with the crowd.

Finally: make the most of the experience. Fortune Brainstorm TECH provides top business leaders, Fortune 500 companies, investors and emerging entrepreneurs with a platform for sharing their stories and vision. The onus is on the attendees and their communications teams to come with a compelling story and strategic communications plan that will help shape and lead the conversations they want to be a part of.

Margot Edelman is a vice president, Edelman San Francisco.

*Edelman client

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