The future is uncertain - it is a constant refrain. Uncertainty is the off-beat in our rhythm of change. But life is - and always has been - uncertain. It only takes a moment and we find ourselves on a different path. A split-second decision, an accidental discovery, an idea, a mishap - anything and everything can alter our course.
Probability - that great driver of generative AI - is the only keen eye we can cast over the paths we might tread and, for the last twelve months, I’ve been rolling the dice looking at probable futures for public relations, the shape of practice to come and what we need to learn and understand if we are to keep our sector on the road.
Over the next five days I’ll be sharing some of the potential highs and lows we might find on those possible paths - with the last update scheduled to coincide with World PR Day, an initiative from BHMUK which you can find out more about here - https://wprd.app/
So what are the five futures? And what’s the likelihood of each? Today’s offering is something of a double - a speedy look at where we are now (always good to know where you’re coming from) plus the first possible future into which, like the others, some of us have at least dipped a toe.
First up is a data-driven future. We’ll come back to that in a moment but, so you know what’s ahead (with some degree of certainty) here are the others:
There’s a bonus sixth which concerns our societal future - but that we will unwrap at the end, so I hope you’ll stay with me and share your thoughts on the shape of things to come.
At the crossroads
We have a muddle of models in public relations and communication management, all of which have emerged over decades, sparked by different perspectives, cultures and circumstance. Some countries still retain a focus on mainstream media relations while in others, the relationship is at the heart. Some organisations aim for information command and control, others seek to change behaviours. My focus has always been on the relationship because public relations builds and sustains the relationships we need to maintain our licence to operate. That licence can be social, political, economic, environmental or all four.
My PR Atom - illustrated here - breaks it down for you, shows the connection between the relationship and its supporting elements of communication, behaviour and understanding. If you want a more detailed explanation, here’s a video but in terms of where we are now there are three commonly found approaches across the world. First, strategic counsel that guides relationship, reputation and supports organisational purpose and outcomes. Second, short-focus task-based content creation and third, marketing communication designed to sell. The latter two are dominated by one-way communication - sending stuff out and, to paraphrase one of my favourite quotes, creating the illusion that communication has taken place.
Organisational culture has an effect on practice as does place - for example, the approach you might find in a consultancy will differ from that in the public sector. For the most part, old methods and models still act as anchor points in organisations - but mainly those still operating on old-school 20th century business and strategic models that are unsuited to today’s world. One of New Zealand’s leading practitioners, Tim Marshall, often describes public relations as operating where issues collide and the many ‘collisions’ occurring in the world impact all of us in some way - either creating further uncertainty, forcing us to find solutions, creating division.
One of our great superpowers as practitioners is our ability to provide situational intelligence to those we advise but - like the cobbler’s children so often poorly shod - we fail time and again to develop and action the insights necessary to inform our own future practice. So is there a utopian future for our profession to be found in our dystopian times? Let’s take a look.
The First Future is Data Driven
The last decade has seen practice transform and in all that time, one future has been cruising along in front of us - data driven public relations. It is a strategic approach that utilises data to formulate, implement and assess public relations programmes. Simply put, data-driven PR harnesses internal and external data to inform, support, and evaluate our decisions. And there’s a lot of data to harness. It can be anything from audience demographics, online behaviours, issues and trends, to employee engagement, campaign results and relationship benchmarks.
For many of us, data driven public relations is one of those ‘the future is now’ moments. Using data to inform strategies has been a core practice element for a number of years. If we’ve been using it, can it really be considered as a ‘future’? I think it can if only because practitioners have fought shy of incorporating data analysis into their work leaning towards the ‘PR is Art’ argument rather than ‘PR is Science’ (although the reality is that it is both). Data plays a significant role in reputation guardianship - understanding the data that’s out there in the wild, how it is being used, or misused, in and around your organisation.
Pros and cons of a data-driven future
Data-driven public relations is powerful stuff. It fosters precision and encourages customisation. By leveraging data, practitioners can tailor programmes to specific communities of interest and stakeholders, improve outcomes and maintain (or build) relationships. It supports evidence-based decision-making rather than intuition or outdated models. Data-driven practice encourages decisions based on quantifiable facts. Most importantly, it give us the ‘measures’ in measurement and evaluation, providing clear indicators as to campaigns or programme progress - crucial for continuous evaluation, improvement and accountability.
That said, a data-driven future comes with a down side. One major challenge is the skills gap. Data analysis and interpretation require a specific skill set, often lacking in our sector. In 2012, the Skills Wheel I developed highlighted data as an area for professional development but I have to say the move towards acquiring the skills has been slow. Ethically, the lack of understanding also fuels the privacy concerns associated with the handling of personal data, the potential for algorithmic bias and errors further complicates a data-driven approach.
As some of the tasks undertaken by practitioners are made redundant, data-driven practice will shape the nature, structure and operations of our profession. We’ve already seen new roles emerge - data analysts, data storytellers, and digital ethicists to name a few but as yet, few practitioners have moved into those roles. I launched my first data-driven storytelling course in 2010 - and guess what? Nobody signed up. Only in the last couple of years have I seen practitioner interest start to bubble - but not boil.
As organisations of all types increasingly rely on data to make decisions, issues around data privacy and security will become even more critical. They will need help to navigate the challenges and balance the potential benefits of data-driven operation against the ethical and legal obligations related to data management.
This ‘first future’ is the first step to be taken at the crossroads. Data-driven public relations practice brings great opportunities and significant challenges. It is a future that inevitably brings further transformation and, as is so often the case, the first step forward begins the journey. Without stepping on the path marked data, the other futures are impenetrable - particularly our next exploration which is a second future driven by artificial intelligence.
Hope to see you tomorrow.
It was my privilege this month to speak at the International Public Relations Summit in Bali and I thought it might be useful to share some of my presentation here - particularly the thoughts on DALL-E, the reliability of data and the bias inherent in AI. Text and some of the images below - I hope it gives you some food for thought.
Kia ora, good morning everyone and thank you Ibu Elizabeth for your kind introduction and I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for all the work you have done to elevate the profession over many years, particularly through this event. I am very grateful to be here and have the opportunity to speak together today.
Before I begin I would like to offer my condolences for the devastating loss of life caused by the earthquake this week. My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones, to those still searching for friends and family and those involved with the rescue and recovery work. It is pertinent that we are going to be discussing trust this morning as the enormous effort to help those so deeply affected by this disaster highlights that we can still trust the goodness, bravery and care of our fellow humans.
As a society - global or local - we can’t function if we don’t trust each other and the ways in which those bonds of trust are formed have shifted and changed. As we know, trust is central to the work we do, which is building and sustaining the relationships we need to maintain our licence to operate - the permission we are given to do the things we do. Trust is one of the agreed and measurable components of our relationships - the others being satisfaction, commitment, loyalty, mutuality - and I add reputation as a reputation, good or bad, will either hinder or help the start or demise of a relationship.
So I thought a really good place to start would be with some sheep. As you may know, I am coming to you from New Zealand where we have our fair share of sheep, scenery and sparkling seas. These sheep I’m going to introduce you to are not any old sheep - because they pose the question ‘are they trustworthy sheep’? You see, they were created by DALL E - an artificial intelligence system that creates art and images from text. I simply told the AI engine what I want to see and it has presented me with options. Pretty cute eh - couple of sheep, enjoying the sea view underneath a rainbow. Where’s the harm? The next ‘image’ I requested was for public relations professionals at work - and I got these.
But my final request was for public relations leaders at work - and look what DALL E served me. Images based on data provided and loaded with bias.
The pandemic accelerated digital transformation in organisations, with much automation and reliance on data. Learning engines have been deployed across sectors - everything from DALL E style images to recruitment but with the deployment comes bias, burrowing its way into systems and data because the AI we get is only as good as the data on which it is based and if that data is preloaded with bias, the actions undertaken as a result will not be trustworthy - or accurate. This then proves something of a quandary for our leaders as they will be guiding us based on inaccurate data capable of creating stereotypes with the potential for societal harm.
Back in 2002 I had high hopes for digital engagement - blogs were the primary form of online connection (along with forums, message boards and other tech now considered archaic). The embryonic online world removed the filters and barriers to communication and allowed us to connect directly to our communities, our customers and stakeholders. Leap forward to 2012 when Elizabeth began this series of events and leaders had realised the power of digital engagement with authenticity and trustworthiness online approaching its peak. We moved beyond direct communication, binding our lives to the cloud, using it to meet many of our needs and wants. But, from 2015, the souring of tone, the bullying behaviour and exploitation of others began to accelerate. We saw the trolls come out in force, we saw bad actors manipulate data for profit and gain, we saw political candidates launch an onslaught of hateful speech, unleash the curse of misinformation and open the doors wide to conspiracy theorists. Some have deliberately exploited the loopholes and shortcomings of social media, simultaneously reducing trust to rubble or inspiring their followers to take to the streets - the digital environment is a now place of great contradictions where we are capable of amazing or terrible things, depending on the choices we make and the values we hold. Digital transformation accelerated in 2020 with the arrival of COVID19 - a Deloitte CEO study reported 77% of them had pushed forward digital initiatives as a result of the pandemic. We became used to connecting like this and had to learn to trust the strength of our connections - both literal and figurative.
Today, as people seek to connect with trustworthy information, organisations and people, the online environment is once more fragmenting - this time into closed communities of interest, run on platforms like sub stack or community platforms like guild. Research into trust is regularly undertaken - indeed Adrian has taken us through some of Edelman’s trust findings this morning - and they are not alone. Ongoing monitoring of trust by researchers at Our World in Data demonstrates the correlation between levels of interpersonal trust - how much we trust each other - and other areas of trust such as in government and media. The levels we saw in 2020 are probably very different in 2022 but one constant result is that countries with high levels of interpersonal trust were also more stable, safer, and civil discourse was still - well, civil.
Sadly, online engagement has undermined societal trust significantly in the last decade and this distrust has been thrown into sharp relief in the last two years as we have navigated the pandemic. The ‘infodemic’ that resulted from COVID19 and its management created deep cracks in social cohesion, even in those countries with previously high levels of civil discourse, resulting in unrest and violence. Ongoing developments on the many social networks have worsened the situation - the Elon Musk takeover of Twitter does nothing to increase hope for change and the Facebook controversies concerning privacy, accuracy, bias, hate speech and other topics fans the flames of division.
So what is our part in all this? As public relations and communication professionals we have an ethical duty of care to ensure that data used by our organisation is clean, accurate and unbiased. We have a duty of care to equip our leaders with the tools they need to speak and act honestly and transparently in the digital environment and we have a duty of care to help our organisations, our stakeholders and our communities of interest to navigate the turbulent waters that await them each time they are online - which for most people, is most of their time.
This may seem a little bleak when my topic is enabling trust in the digital environment but we have to understand where trust is being disabled in order for us to create or encourage circumstances where trust can take root and thrive.
The people who operate the platforms and networks we use have a great responsibility but we have traded our privacy and in some cases civility for access to the platforms. As has been said so often, the product peddled by the networks is us. But the new, evolved product isn’t simply ‘us’, it is our attention, it is our emotion, it is our state of mind, gripped and manipulated by algorithms that seem to know us better than we know ourselves. Algorithms that are tweaked and tinkered with so they serve us controversy that prompts us to engage, allowing our attention to be gobbled up by advertisers. Given this known manipulation, should our organisations follow the lead of those who ran a Facebook advertising boycott? Withdrawing ad revenues may not seem to0 great an action for these commercial companies but it certainly has a significant impact on reputation, stock prices and hopefully moderation of operations.
As organisations seemingly move into a new ‘golden age’ of purpose - having forgotten all about it for a few decades - and are now attempting to align their purpose and values, perhaps a good starting point from which to demonstrate this renewed dedication is to start by cleaning up their act online and not using technology for dubious purposes. For example, there’s a row here this morning concerning a supermarket chain that has deployed facial recognition technology in a bid to combat shoplifters but there has been a lack of transparency about that deployment, the use of data and long term consequences of the data acquisition - and quite rightly they have been called out for this behaviour.
Instead of capturing faces how about building trust through communities instead - we have the tech to do this. How about we use data responsibly and redraw our digital terms of engagement? Because enabling trust online isn’t about shiny new tech, artistic artificial intelligence or great reviews on Google - it is, as it has always been, about the way we behave, the choices we make and the genuine desire to build a fair and equitable society. Enabling trust online is up to us - let’s discuss how we can make a start today.
There's a great deal of discussion about the way forward for society. The notion of our licence to operate and subsequent social capital has finally begun to feature in good conversations around the world so, with spring in the air here, I've dusted off and updated my video explanation of the licence to operate - what it is, what it does, why we need one and how public relations and communication helps us get - and keep - one of our own. Public relations builds and sustains the relationships we need to maintain our licence to operate - it is the very heart of what we do.
August has been a bit of a blur of webinars, question and answer sessions and debates on the nature of what we do. As the month came to a close, having answered all the questions asked of me as best I could, I decided it was time to update our 'What is PR?' video which has all the answers to the question 'What is PR', including definitions of public relations, our purpose and a newly minted PR Atom model in motion that shows you how it all works. Enjoy.
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.