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”.
About Think Forward
Think Forward is written by Catherine Arrow. It answers PR questions, highlights practice trends - good and bad - and suggests ways forward for professional public relations and communication practitioners.