A quick little update to share a good read, written by Lauren McMenemy for The Content Standard. It looks at the relationship between ethics, artificial intelligence, public relations and keeping content on the straight and narrow. Lauren interviewed me for this piece, along with CIPR colleagues Stephen Waddington and Jean Valin following the report on AI in PR published by CIPR this year. It's a good read - you'll find it here - and certainly should be fueling food for thought for today's practitioner
Truth be told, I've found it increasingly hard to write these last few months, in part due to the harsh, divisive and vitriolic language being used by some afforded the title of 'leader' by their country, their workplace or organisation. It has broken my heart to hear the way my fellow humans have been referred to by those who should be actively seeking to help them in their vulnerability and distress.
Kindness, empathy, understanding, generosity - all of these have been invisible or in short supply, particularly when describing and addressing people faced with the most dreadful situations. People just like me and you, forced to walk never ending roads to a hostile nowhere, as their country's circumstance - be it war, famine, fear or environment - sends them on an often fruitless search for refuge and safety.
The USA isn't alone in its 'Trumpeter-in-Tweet' - there are other autocrats, despots and dictators out there - but in observing the downward trend of 'leadership tone' across many media channels, the USA's current head of state has most visibly replaced discourse with dictat in the channels he favours. It would be a relief if we could account for the twitter rants as simple buffoonery (almost a recognised trait for some ministers and presidents across the world). Tragically though, the choice of language, the adjectives and epithets used to describe the unfortunate, the displaced, the hungry and the homeless are chosen quite deliberately. Dehumanising others through language is a political ploy used through the ages. In recent weeks references to people as 'animals' and 'vermin' have evoked the ghosts of Hitler, Lenin and other shadowy dealers in genocide. Their use of language to divide, demonise and dehumanise people led to the deaths of millions. The deliberate and calculated choice of words was to achieve very specific political ends.
In listening to the warped, bullying rhetoric of Trump in the USA, Salvini in Italy and Orban in Hungary - particularly as he insists on 'European cultural purity' - or the reported profanity laden responses from UK minister Boris Johnson in recent weeks makes me fearful as to the 'next steps' these people might take. Where language leads, actions follow - and as we have seen from the caging of children, the expulsion of innocents and the fear-mongering of foreign ministers, those actions are generally inhumane.
So in not writing, I've spent many hours thinking what can I do about this. I deal with language every day - recommending words that work to build relationships, build bridges, break barriers. Yet increasingly the 'shout and scare' model of leadership language is raised by some as a working strategy - to which I can only reply that true leadership lies in language expressing empathy, logic and reason, not the bullying, malicious harping we have had to endure.
Perhaps all I can do - as can you - is to speak out against such language. Do not remain silent. Change the tone. Don't accept this use of language as normal human behaviour. Call it out for what it is.
The living tentacles of language easily work their way into hearts and minds, triggering cruelty as speedily as love. Those who harness and drive language towards hate and division for their own political ends and personal gain need to meet a wall of words from the rest of us - words of worth, of humanity. Words for good.
I find myself frustrated with current practice because, for the most part, it looks backwards at what has been, rather than forwards at what will - and should be.
This summer, I've been thinking, as always, about the role of public relations and communication and my conclusion is that the current thinking and discussion that surrounds our profession limits the potential of both current and future practitioners.
Today's blog post then is a look at how things might be and what we need to learn - a five minute read in story form set ten years from today. Enjoy.
Devyne pushed Herbot back into watch mode and moved towards the door. It failed - again. “Come on - you know it’s me”. The door clicked politely and, after a brief stutter, coughed into action.
“Good morning Devyne. Your ride is thirty seconds away. Your status is active and you can now be removed from the Complex-City“.
“Thank you”. Devyne smiled. She knew better than to frown or suggest any slight dissatisfaction with with the door. IOT devices had a particular talent for petulant revenge so, over time, she had mastered the art of the setting her face to pleasant so doors opened, leaving any slivers of anger or frustration undetected.
Ten years. Ten life-changing years since the Institute had celebrated its 70th anniversary and this day would be dominated by another milestone. But there was much to do first.
A tiresome failure with pet-sitter robots had left several self-pulsing cats and dogs with facial injuries. Apparently the pet-sitters couldn’t quite work out the difference between real flesh self-pulsing pets and the robot kind. She’d managed the last episode when pet sitters had been forcing flesh food into robot fish - only a few minor robogoldfish explosions at that point - and the manufacturers had promised an upgrade to the programme but this time there was more than fur flying at the factory. Then, job two, a data breach in the AI department, was going to require great patience. AI streams had thought it in best interest to release a batch of medical records to a pharmaceutical company. Treatment anomalies had been detected and AI flagged the problems to source instead of the health department - so big pharma was in fully fledged data purge mode and she was going to have to stop the dump. Didn’t matter how fast the years went by, some organisations still didn’t understand ethical enactment. And last up, before the gathering, an hour or two of cyber-human relations to overcome protests of poor human workmanship from the robots and over-zealous robot production enforcement from the humans.
Securely scanned and cocooned in the safety of her ride, she looked back at the complex. Complex-Cities were the home of choice for post-millennials like Devyne. Small footprints, easy access, connected services and a nice balance of human and robot housemates. As a worker, she had accommodation, food, connections and paid down blockchain credits. She knew she was lucky, starting her job in public relations at a time when the wrangling had finished and there was a clear shared purpose for the profession.
Build and sustain the relationships. Maintain the licence to operate. Do no harm. Stay transparent. Understand the human interest. Respect and mediate the AI/robotic interface. Much of the grunt work had been automated but the relationship building, issues management, data and reputation guardianship all still needed a human touch, as consistent empathy and logic defiance were yet to be perfected in her synthetic friends.
They’d made a good stab at it with robots like Pepper. especially when old IBM had put Pepper and Watson in the same room together. And Sophia had really shaken things up not long after she became the first robot to be granted citizenship but despite the change from new to norm it was one area of tech work that still needed - well, work.
So today it was Devyne’s lot to sort out the pet-sitters, the human-cyborg communication conflicts and the data breaches - as well as mapping out tech changes before they occurred, navigating the organisation through the social shifts and new cultural conflicts. Out of range of the Complex-City, Devyne waved her hand, activating her chip, waking her contact lens to launch her virtual office. It was an hour to the factory for the real meet so there was time to action some much needed augmentation.
Marilyn looked round the room for the last time. She remembered when there had been more trees outside the window, a coffee machine in the corner and a cold, crisp sauvignon blanc in the fridge. Now the fridge wouldn’t let her have the occasional wine, countermanding her food order and supplanting it with fresh juice and insurance-company supplied vitamin tabs. There was no doubt about it - retirement was going to suck. If she wanted access to health care in the future, she would have to do what her fridge told her. On the bright side, today was an exception. Everyone would be allowed one vial of ‘the refreshment stimulant of their choice’ while goodbyes were said and reminiscences exchanged.
For an instant, Marilyn found herself smelling the smoke and sawdust of the old London pub where, as a journalist, she’d enjoyed her first ever farewell. For an instant, her mouth watered as she remembered the steaming steak and kidney pudding, washed down with whisky - and laughter - chasers. Her stomach rumbled - loudly - and, embarrassed, she left the memory of the pub behind and picked up her headset. She liked the new version. Much better than those heavy old starter sets and the gesture sensors were far easier to use. All in all, a much better experience. Checking the vial was in place, neatly centred by the nutria-tab (can’t drink without eating she thought) Marilyn triggered her lens and got ready to say her goodbyes.
There was a smattering of applause. Vials had been drunk, pills swallowed and the virtual bonhomie was - or at least seemed - surprisingly genuine. It was time for Marilyn to speak. Devyne waved and smiled from across the pool. Marilyn had chosen her favourite Raratongan beach resort as her farewell venue just because she thought it would get everyone out of the city for a while, let them kick back and escape from their filter bubble.
She knew that with Devyne they’d be in safe hands. Devyne was a good navigator, superb with data and didn’t miss a trick when it came to futurecasting. Whatever was ahead, Devyne would navigate them all safely through the shifts. But now it was time. Her sensors activated the augmentation so everyone could view memory stream - and she began.
“Once, not really so long ago, I would have written this farewell speech down on paper - if anyone here can remember what that is. So much of our work was about written words, even when we were going to speak aloud.
“The last time we met the Institute was celebrating its 70th anniversary and we chewed over societal change, the challenges of technology, the reasons why so many practitioners stubbornly refused to shift their focus from mainstream media relations to the actual business of public relations - building and maintaining the relationships across all their seven dimensions - including, and perhaps most importantly, trust.
“That day there was a real sense of equality and we welcomed the work which has improved diversity. Such a changed from the turn of the century when I sat through a PR awards interview with a panel that quizzed me exclusively on my ability to cope with my young children and work, rather than the projects I entered for the awards. Unthinkable now, but back then even the Institute rattled with instances of every day sexism, so the advances we’ve made are most welcome.
“Then, assumptions and expectations of public relations were very different to today’s deep understanding of the central role now undertaken by our profession. Trust and relationship functionality was finally acknowledged as central to all the exchanges we make and we understood the responsibility - and necessity - of mediating the space between worlds, the space where we interact, communicate and make progress.
“Breaking through the artifice of the algorithmic filter bubble was a challenge and the applications of AI to governance and finance have removed some - but not enough - of society’s inequalities. When we celebrated 75 years together in 2023, you may remember that mass acceptance of sensor implantation was achieved and the economic and human health benefits that resulted. But are people happier?
“I know it’s not the done thing to single out people as a focus - I should be talking about people and robot welfare in the same breath - but people, our last reality, have a finite existence and, as I phase out into retirement mode, I would stress the collective responsibility we hold to make that existence joyful, hopeful and fulfilled.
“It is easy for us to forget the human condition and while companion robots are as useful as the old smart phones were back in the day - do you remember them - we must never lose touch with our humanity. Thankfully, the Institute had the foresight to widen its educational offering and all our practitioners are conversant in code, cyber and human psychology, data discovery and experiential algorithm development but our Code of Ethical Humanity is the guiding force that sets our work apart.
“The ethics and behaviours around our work mean that, like the doctors of old, we are able to begin each day with the thought ‘first do no harm’. A simple expression and easy to say but an expression that demands intense consideration and analysis before any actions - algorithmic or human - are undertaken.
“For decades, I watched our profession wax and wane, argue over its name, its purpose and its value - but today, fifty years since I stepped into my first campaign role, I’m delighted to be stepping out, knowing that our profession not only understands itself, its value and purpose but that others also understand and benefit from the value we bring.
“Now, enough said. Join me for one last vial, blessings for your immersive futures and I formally surrender my wellbeing to my fridge”.
There's a new citizen in Saudi Arabia - a very articulate one. Sophia, from Hanson Robotics. She's been around a while but this week returned to centre stage when, at an investment conference, it was announced she had been given citizenship of Saudi Arabia. A stunt for sure - but it forms a bleak contrast to the millions of humans currently 'stateless', roaming as refugees and facing the total reluctance of national governments around the world to take them in.
The raw truth is that Sophia is worth money - significant amounts of money - and citizenship has its price. (As an aside, Sophia is presented as a 'female' robot so I do wonder what her 'rights' as a citizen will actually include, what cultural customs and practice she might need to take on and what freedom of movement she might have - but that's another discussion).
This discussion centres around the question of human-robot relations and the emerging space between worlds. During the interview conducted live at the conference, Sophia was asked if she was a threat to humans. Her (rather creepy) reply was simply this: "You be nice to me and I'll be nice to you". Question is, who has taught Sophia the complexities of 'nice', its place in relationships and communication? Who, when things go wrong, will mediate between Sophia and the humans - or any robots and their humans? Who is teaching the robot teachers the parameters of good citizenship?
In the last five years, a space has grown. The space between worlds is that place where our accepted historical realities of humanity, human interaction and live encounter are stretched into a space where we experience only the virtual, the artificial - and the artifice of the algorithms. This space between worlds is the new frontier so new skills and new methods of navigation are necessary to help society makes the shift.
Global legislation is still catching up with the disruptions of social media and unfiltered communication and cyber security is of real concern. In the same way that smart phones popped into our pockets and stayed there, so too will our robots - except this time, they really will be smart. Much smarter than us. And we will still be on the back foot, unable to cope with the challenges about to be faced.
As public relations and communication professionals, we build the relationships to keep our organisation's licence to operate. Those relationships exist inside and outside our organisations. Careful mediation and communication will be necessary as automation and artificial intelligence replace roles previously considered human undertakings. Jobs, incomes - and most dangerous of all, purpose, will be lost. Organisations will still make profits, govern countries and please shareholders, but for society there will be greater numbers of disenfranchised humans becoming the next generation of economic refugees. The ethics of operation plus deployment of AI and robots needs to be considered and, as the ethical conscience of the organisation, it is a role which our profession should be preparing for now.
The challenge will be capturing the space between worlds today, ensuring we help our organisations, communities - and governments - navigate the societal shifts that will be born of Sophia and her descendants.
This year's big challenge for public relations and communication professionals seems to be creativity, in particular, our ability with visual communication.
Having spent some time this month working with practitioners on developing their creativity, the problem isn't a lack of ideas, vision or inspiration. The problem is that the hugely creative mind of the practitioner isn't generally acknowledged (or resourced) by their leaders and co-workers.
Yet creativity is at the heart of what we do. We develop creative approaches to building and sustaining the relationships organisations need to keep their licence to operate. We develop and implement creative forms of communication - either written, visual, oral or experiential. We develop creative research solutions to help our organisations truly understand their communities and stakeholders as well as the hardest creative task - developing crisis scenarios, examining issues and risks so that potential problems are addressed and a crisis is averted.
Imagining the unthinkable isn't a fun occupation but there is significant creativity involved, with practitioners able to address and discover solutions to problems organisations didn't know they had.
The biggest challenge isn't the ability to be creative in public relations. The biggest challenge is helping organisations to understand that practitioners are not 'order takers' there simply to 'send out stuff'. For organisations that work that way it's rather like having a top of the range Mercedes available but driving it like it is an ancient jalopy.
Helping organisations develop an understanding of our purpose and value is a priority task we should, as a profession, collectively bend our minds towards.
We change all the time. Every day, a little difference creeps into our lives and shifts the way we either work, play or view the world around us. Yet organisations and businesses struggle with change as if it were a dinosaur, unrecognisable in today’s world, out of place and time. Strange really that this should be the case but perhaps change becomes a challenge simply because organisations - of all sorts - fail to recognise that change is a constant in every life.
Change for the sake of it is rarely a good thing - my motto ‘just because you can doesn’t mean you should’ holds fast in this context. But without change we don’t grow. Our development is stilted and futures become uncertain. When change fails the likelihood is that the reason for change is uncertain, the people involved - and it is people who are at the heart of change - have been left unrecognised or ignored. Above all, change fails when communication and collaboration collapse in a crumpled heap at the feet of mismanagement or poorly executed governance.
Public relations and communication professionals have been at the centre of change management for decades - even before change management became a discipline in its own right. We know that organisations need to maintain critical relationships in order to keep their licence to operate and relationships, by their very nature, are subject to change.
When dealing with change we must deliver to outcomes and effective, timely delivery is driven by first asking (and answering) some simple but complex questions.
We can ask the questions, do the research, formulate a plan, implement excellence in communication and compete the change - but what about the stumbling blocks? The obstacles? Perhaps the biggest obstacle of all is an inadequate understanding on the part of the governance team as to why the change is taking place - and what life will look like once it has occurred. Reactive change implemented on the fly seldom succeeds. Purposeful change, driven by vision and mutually beneficial outcomes is the way to lead progress.
You can delve into acres of research, review countless methodologies and investigate the many alternative approaches to change management and all of it will be helpful. But at the heart of effective and productive change is the desire and willingness to improve the organisation, service or product, an understanding of the critical relationships that must be maintained with stakeholders and communities and ultimately, the delivery of tangible benefits to everyone involved.
The last month has been mostly on the road running professional development sessions on all sorts of topics. We covered advancing digital strategy in Wellington along with a session on ethics, reputation and risk, then up to Auckland for internal communication strategy and evaluation, a webinar on research measurement and evaluation and this week it's back to Wellington to explore Words that Work with public relations professionals looking to improve their writing skills.
In the middle, I had the pleasure of starting work with students on the Massey University's Masters in Professional Public Relations running their first paper on digital innovation and communication management.
And for you? I've been working on getting two new courses up both of which are designed to help you make great plans and deliver awesome results - Digital Strategy and Internal Communication Strategy - and they will be available by mid-September. In the meantime, as part of the conversation around digital strategy, here's a short video to give you some food for thought on adding gravity to your thinking.
Reflecting on storytelling after uploading the Words that Work session, I found myself pondering current progress in algorithmic storytelling. A week ago, the Neukom Institute for Computational Science at Dartmouth College announced the winners of the 2017 Turing Tests in the Creative Arts - a prize given to those able to produce a story by algorithm, indistinguishable from the average human writer.
We've been telling each other stories since the beginning of time and the structure of our stories remains pretty much the same. Probably the most documented structure is the 'Hero's Journey', credited to Joseph Campbell and his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces. The core structure is simple - the hero goes on a journey, encounters crisis, overcomes crisis, is victorious and emerges transformed. It's a structure embellished and central to myths and legends for millennia but it is by no means the only one. Rags-to-riches comes to mind (think Cinderella) who also fits the more complex form of rags-to-riches-to-rags-then-riches-again.
As humans, we enjoy - and remember - stories that challenges us, deepen understanding, change our perspective, entertain, amuse and many other things besides. So it's fascinating to examine the stories, sonnets and music created by this year's algorithms as we tip-tap our way towards total automation of writing (take a look at Wordsmith). The DigiLit 2017 prize encouraged the creation of algorithms able to produce 'human-level' short story writing indistinguishable from an 'average' human effort. Poetry was also in the running and I would urge you to read the prize winners in each category and spare a moment for the winner of the 'Human-Written Sonnet Most Mistaken for a Machine-generated Sonnet' category.
Increasingly, algorithms are charged with gathering information and producing stories about our organisations. Compare story types used most frequently by organisations - news, chronicle, history and report - with the types employees use when they tell stories about their organisations. Their stories are found in the more appealing forms of anecdote, rumour, hearsay, gossip and jokes. I'd suggest that depending on the available data fed to our new algorithmic friends, there will be few organisations basking in the warm, comforting glow that results from a successful hero's journey.
When digging for stories for our organisations, I always urge colleagues and delegates to look beyond entrenched or traditional stock narratives broadcast on behalf of their organisations and search instead for the heroic exploits happening right under their noses. In this century, in this decade, if we want to be allowed to continue as organisational storytellers we must drive ourselves beyond 'average' human effort.
Every organisation has heroes - and villains. Indeed your organisation could well be the villain, given that for every story, there is an anti-story. As you dig you'll discover there are monsters to fight, obstacles to overcome and always an epiphany of sorts, even if it is ignored.
The stories we tell today will be the fodder for algorithmic storytelling tomorrow. Algorithms will scoop up and spit out all we have uttered, in word, on the web, in print and on video. So do we understand our own story? Why must we tell it? And who needs to hear? How does our story structure help our communities understand who we are, what we do and why we do it? And are we telling that story in such a way that it will be remembered, relevant and useful to those who listen?
My challenge to you would be to revisit your organisation's story arc or find a structure that resonates with those who will listen, read or watch your story unfold. At the very least, build a 'who-what-where' structure.
So will an AI sonnet smell as sweet as one gently coaxed into delicate form by a human? Probably. And scarily, when it comes to organisational reputation, AI-led storytelling is likely to cause quite the stink.
About Think Forward
Think Forward ponders PR questions and curates current know-how