In December, Google CEO Sundar Pichai, appeared before the US House Judiciary Committee to answer questions surrounding data privacy, industry competition and interestingly, an alleged anti-Republican bias hidden within the Google algorithms. His measured and mature performance came as a welcome change of pace, at the end of a year when more bombastic business leaders like Elon Musk had struggled to come to terms with new found levels of regulatory spotlight.
“20 years ago, two students—one from Michigan and one from Maryland—came together at Stanford with a big idea: to provide users with access to the world’s information.” Sundar Pichai, Chief Executive Officer of Google LLC, had submitted his prepared remarks well in advance of his company’s congressional hearing in Washington in December 2018. Imbued with a patriotic tone and allusion to investment in industry and American jobs, these remarks served to ingratiate the tech CEO to an otherwise hostile audience before he had ever looked them in the eye.
When he got there, it was Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren, who gave the business leader the opportunity to explain exactly how the Google algorithm works: “Right now,” said Lofgren, “if you Google the word ‘idiot’ under images, a picture of Donald Trump comes up. I just did that.”
The Google CEO’s response was calm and communicative, outlining the mechanics behind the Google search engine in a way that could be comprehended by all, while ultimately delivering a level of transparency that answered the question without room for rebuke. If only the afore-mentioned Tesla boss had conducted himself with such decorum, instead of dismissing ‘boring’ ‘bonehead’ questions, he may not have found himself in such hot water today.
At RDF Strategies, we recently wrote about the importance of the Earnings Call and how these events and other public appearances like them could provide CEOs and other C-suite executive with opportunities for growth, as opposed to reasons to be fearful. Google’s appearance at Congress demonstrated the power of communicating effectively with regulators and government bodies, and we’ve here highlighted three key components that contributed to the CEO’s success.
The clue is there in the title. The prepared remarks submitted by the Google CEO laid the foundations for the real-world interactions that followed. Not only was Pichai’s prologue delivered to Congress in a timely fashion, it also made its way across the global press, providing the platform upon which to create his own first impression before being backlit by the House for the world’s media. So effective was this distribution that it allowed RDF London Consultant, Jamie Gavin, who had been invited onto the BBC to offer analysis ahead of the hearing, the opportunity to research the CEO’s message and present a balanced view of the debate about to take place.
The remarks were also published in full on CNBC. Phrases like “the free flow of information”, “protecting the privacy and security of our users”, and “the important role of governments” highlight an awareness of the concerns that were to be talked about. Pichai’s balancing of his background “Growing up in India” with his responsibilities as the leader of “an American company” showed a strong understanding of the current nationalist backdrop and a ‘Make America Great Again!’ Republican Party against which the debate took place.
In short, the CEO did his homework, pre-empted the questions that would come his way, and set about laying the foundations for a mature and transparent discussion around them with empathy and linguistic precision. Not a bad implementation of effective language skills, for a man present predominantly to talk about numeric algorithms!
A few months ago, Google hit the headlines following a mass Google+ data breach. When the story broke the UK Guardian reported that the company “didn’t disclose [the] leak for months to avoid a public relations headache and potential regulatory enforcement”. This is of course a bad look for a global company operating in an ‘always on’ digital media age, particularly for a brand that has famously traded on the motto ‘Don’t be evil’.
However, there appeared to be no such shroud of secrecy during Pichai’s December Congressional hearing, and perhaps what we saw were the results of a lesson learned:
“Any time you type in a keyword, as Google we have gone out and crawled and stored copies of billions of [websites’] pages in our index. And we take the keyword and match it against their pages and rank them based on over 200 signals — things like relevance, freshness, popularity, how other people are using it. And based on that, at any given time, we try to rank and find the best search results for that query. And then we evaluate them with external raters, and they evaluate it to objective guidelines. And that’s how we make sure the process is working.”
The Google CEO showed up at Congress, available and open to questioning, and happy to offer a full insight into the way the company works. So, when he reiterated to the panel that Trump deserved his place at the top of the Google ‘idiot’ search by saying “This is working at scale, and we don’t manually intervene on any particular search result,” his words were allowed more oxygen. In an age of fake news, a healthy dose of facts and reality can go a long, long way.
Accepting the need for change
It’s no secret that regulatory bodies are showing increased interest in tech platforms. We see that in the news every day. While digital media has revolutionised the way we communicate with one another around the world, empowering businesses and consumers alike, there is also a growing realisation that malevolent forces have hijacked some of these platforms for their own ends, and that the tech companies themselves must shoulder some of the responsibility for preventing this from occurring again.
In July 2018, a new parliamentary report published by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport (DCMS) in the UK recommended that a new category be introduced to properly define and regulate social media companies that are currently viewed ‘neither platform nor publisher’. In the same month, the European Commission slapped Google parent company, Alphabet, with a historic €4.3bn fine regarding Android.
This increased level of regulatory scrutiny has not only become apparent in the US and EU but also in African business in recent years. The ongoing saga between MTN – Africa’s biggest telecoms company – and a number of Nigerian governmental and regulatory bodies highlights a growing friction between large multinational organisations and the governments of individual nation states.
For better or worse, we have seen increased correlation between government and business over the last few years, and large scale companies are finding themselves under greater regulatory scrutiny. Communicating with regulators, just like communicating with customers and other stakeholders effectively, is now an essential part of the ongoing work of the CEO and other C-suite executives. Google’s recent appearance at Congress demonstrated the power that an effective public communications plan can hold. Developing these new leadership skills and strategies, across all sectors of business, is becoming increasingly important.
Dr Balonwu is Chair of African Women on Board (AWB) and Managing Partner at RDF, a Strategic Communication and Stakeholder Engagement firm that provides strategic counsel to Public and Private Sector Institutions and C-suite Executives