Nick Horowitz (L) and Richard Chang co-authored this article.
Some commuters have welcomed dockless bicycles and scooters as a positive addition to cities’ transportation networks, adding a cheap, convenient way to get around, especially where public transit is lacking. Yet, these services have cultivated a surprising amount of animosity from local officials and drawn loud protests from community members.
These dockless bikes and scooters — some with battery power, some pedal-driven — have grown ubiquitous on the sidewalks of American cities over the past few months. They have also become symbols of the tech industry’s ignorance. From city officials referring to them as a “public nuisance” as they block sidewalks and entryways, to neighbors protesting the expansion of services and even some taking to vandalizing the scooters themselves, these dockless transportation startups are facing an uphill battle in the very places where their service should achieve broad appeal.
And now, the city of San Francisco has announced that it plans to ban dockless scooter startups from their streets and sidewalks, relegating these companies to a 12-month long pilot program limited to only a few thousand total scooters in San Francisco and hindering their ability to grow — at least in the short term.
Did it have to be this way? What steps could these startups have taken to anticipate and ward off this backlash? How could they have ensured that the conversation took place on their terms?
The debate around dockless bikes and scooters provides a microcosm view into the many struggles facing Silicon Valley tech firms. A revolutionary idea can be jeopardized by a lack of consideration for real world consequences and reactions from the public.
In this case, it’s not about privacy violations or the spread of misinformation. It’s a battle about cluttered streets, blocked driveways and accessibility for the disabled. However, the lesson is the same: technology companies must make it a priority to understand how their innovations will be received by the real world — and must build a foundation of support with community leaders, influencers and policymakers that can ensure that they own the conversation. That way, they are viewed as problem-solvers, not problem-makers.
This is where a public affairs strategy offers the path to success for any technology company looking to be a disruptor. When you introduce something new and potentially jarring, it is difficult to avoid criticism. But you can maintain control of the debate. You can build a base of support that already holds sway within the community to give you a validating voice. You can offer proactive solutions to easily foreseeable problems and questions.
We’re already seeing some of that from the dockless industry. In Washington, D.C., the CEO of one of the dockless scooter startups, Bird, launched his service with a challenge to his peers: agree to a “Save Our Sidewalks” pledge. According to The Washington Post, this would ask dockless companies to “commit to give a share of their revenue, $1 per vehicle per day, to build bike lanes, promote safe riding and maintain shared infrastructure.”
Perhaps the lesson is being taken to heart. For tomorrow’s technology leaders, it’s important to learn from the missteps of predecessors. Innovative solutions to real-world problems can — and often should — be disruptive. With disruption, comes a responsibility to the communities and consumers you seek to serve. A smart public affairs strategy can offer a roadmap to success that complements and enhances your big idea.
Nick Horowitz is an account director and serves as Racepoint Global’s editor-in-chief, leading thought leadership content development for clients and the agency. He serves as the writer for editorials, public remarks, white papers and blogs. Nick has experience executing a wide range of media relations and public affairs campaigns. He has managed media campaigns for a diverse slate of clients including ARM Holdings, Lockheed Martin, AT&T and the Kingdom of Jordan, and has secured media coverage for clients in outlets including NPR, CNN, MSNBC, Reuters, and The Washington Post.
Richard Chang is a senior account executive for Racepoint Global’s San Francisco office. He began his career as a reporter for The Sacramento Bee, the newspaper for California’s capital city and flagship of the McClatchy Company. During his tenure, Richard covered multiple beats including local government, crime/breaking news, business and education. Prior to joining Racepoint, Richard served as a senior public information officer for the University of California.