Well the start of 2023 has certainly been a blast here in New Zealand with Cyclone Hale wreaking havoc around the coast and adding to the woes of what has been billed the worst summer in nearly twenty years. As I write, people on the East Coast are still without power, the road network needs massive reinstatement and it has been - literally - a washout of a summer.
Personally, this local example of climate change has moved me off the beach - which is where I had hoped to be - and into a cosy chair for my brief holiday break, distracted with some reading (once we got power and services back on and dealt with the waterlogging).
Professionally, most conversations have been concerned with ChatGPT, its power, ability and general cleverness. The big 'miss' has been the conversation we need to have around ethical application. That's the first chat on the agenda. The second is the impact it will have on our profession. There's no doubt that it has come for the jobs but only if public relations and communications professionals fail to elevate their undertaking from the tactical to the strategic. And only if organisations realise the automation of content may look easy and save them a few bucks (for now) but without context or direction, automation will lead to their demise, huge reputational damage and a disconnection from their stakeholders and communities.
I've spent the last week or so whipping up a professional development session that I hope will help practitioners understand not just what is on the horizon but what is knocking at the door ready to eat their lunch. I'll post the links here next week when (hopefully) it will be ready to go and I'm making it free access because I believe it is essential to encourage practitioners to actively consider and understand what lies ahead for their organisations and themselves. Meanwhile, I suggest you read this year's edition of the World Economic Forum's Global Risk Report (gloomy but essential New Year reading) and determine how you'll be making a difference in the months ahead -mand what you need to learn to help you make that difference.
Heading into Christmas, there was an early 'gift' from OpenAI this month with the release of a new model, ChatGPT. You can read their blog post here and it gives you the detail on how it works, what it does and how it can be used. It is extraordinarily clever and a powerful tool that can be used in a myriad of ways - but, as my motto remains - just because we can, doesn't mean we should. I've covered the ethics of AI and its application many times over the years and as the capability of tools such as ChatGPT increases, so too do the ethical challenges. Question is, will ChatGPT be on Santa's naughty or nice list this Christmas? Will people opt for the lazy route of generating content (which will mean a world where algorithms chat to each other but we don't) or will practitioners realise they are at a point of evolution for the profession where they can be eliminated by the tactical or elevated by wise counsel? Jury will be out on that for a while - meantime, Happy Christmas - ChatGPT had this to say on the season when I asked it to describe and explain Christmas (which it did in less than a second):
"Christmas is a holiday that commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ. It is typically celebrated on December 25th by Christians around the world and is considered to be one of the most important holidays in the Christian faith. The holiday is often marked by religious services, the exchange of gifts, and the decoration of homes and churches with festive decorations, such as Christmas trees, lights, and mistletoe. Many people also celebrate Christmas by preparing special meals and gathering with friends and family. The holiday has also been adopted by many non-religious people as a cultural celebration, and is often associated with secular traditions such as Santa Claus, gift-giving, and the singing of Christmas carols."
However you celebrate - enjoy the season.
This post is really an 'in case you missed it' mention of the marvellous Mick Lynch, secretary-general of the UK's National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT). During the northern hemisphere summer there has been a series of strikes and industrial action taken by RMT over pay and conditions. Mick Lynch has done a remarkable job of representing the 40,000 members and he has been masterful in his management of media interviews.
Much of the British press is known for its shallow approach, influenced by mega-rich publishers. High standards of journalism are seldom demonstrated and most of the time reporting leaves viewers and readers frustrated and irritated. Interview subjects find themselves interuppted, balance is all but invisible and instead of trying to elicit an informed response, the aggression and posturing by journalists instead illuminates the interviewer's ego rather than shedding light on the issues.
The edit above shows us hope is not lost. That a sincere, persistent, articulate and informed individual who has absolute clarity of purpose can overcome the tawdry standards of journalism we've had to live with for so long.
Late last month, Aotearoa's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern went the USA to give the commencement speech at Harvard. It was much reported here and overseas and. as part of this month's speechwriting session, I included a few highlights from the address which you can watch in full on YouTube.
Prime Minister Ardern has always delivered good speeches. They are engaging, directed to the people in the room, carry a point, include anecdotes - all the relevant ingredients that make a speech work. The difference with PM Ardern - perhaps even her secret ingredient - is her tone. Sadly we have become used to the shrill and shrieking speeches of Donald Trump these past years with other leaders emulating his delivery (goodness knows why). The constant conflict and aggression central to his delivery is deliberate - designed to suggest power and control. It doesn't demonstrate leadership or suggest any dignity at all. Prime Minister Ardern is, thankfully, the polar opposite and her delivery is such that nobody feels 'left behind' by her words or forced into conflict or anger. That doesn't mean that her speeches don't invite change, or a different perspective. Instead, they support her leadership, vision and care for those she encounters.
And that's the secret of a good speech. The tone and delivery are as important as the spoken words. They highlight the ideas, frame the concepts - invite people to listen, stay listening and remember what was said.
A good speechwriter will write for those who will listen - and those who will speak. It takes practice, planning and care and a genuine concern for both people and place.
We've been witnessing the erosion of societal cohesion over the last two years, much of which has been due to those with a particular type of agenda making the most of misinformation or deliberately sowing disinformation to meet their own ends. As communication professionals one of our ongoing tasks is to surface facts, give them room to breathe and to challenge people and places where facts are replaced with fakes.
Mistrust in organisations of all types is at an all time low and the Edelman Trust Barometer indicates this has led to an expectation that businesses demonstrate societal leadership - the key question is whether they are willing and equipped to do so.
As practitioners, are we suitably equipped to discern the facts from the fiction? Can we differentiate between a genuine misunderstanding or malevolent malinformation?
I thought it would be helpful to outline the three types of information that can cause real problems for organisations - and individuals should they find themselves at the mercy of the conspiracy theorists.
The image above covers the three different types and, depending on the type, you can plan your approach. Misinformation can be fixed with fact while disinformation needs a discussion and investigation - who is behind it, what's the intention, how best can it be dealt with. The last one - malinformation, needs to be part of your crisis response as its effect is likely to be significant.
As part of our routine listening and monitoring, we should be scanning - and planning - for all of the above and know the action we need to take should any member of the terrible trio be found.
It's funny how we measure ourselves at the start of each year. Not all individuals or cultures mark this particular date but for many, January 1 assumes a multi-faceted mantle of change. The magic of a year turning enchants us with possibility so we plan and we plot ways to improve or alter our behaviours.
This year, alongside my own reflections on self-improvement, I found myself thinking about resolutions on a larger scale. What would I ask organisations, communities and governments to change in the year ahead with the focus - of course - on communication and the relationships they hold with their stakeholders?
Over the summer holidays I thought about this a great deal - and ended up with a very long list of potential improvements. Harder still was whittling the list down to a 'top three' that could be used by any organisation, large or small, public or private - but here goes.
In at number one - listen - which is not as obvious as you might think. And by 'listen' I don't mean the selfish vanity listening so many undertake. Real listening discovers the true health of stakeholder relationships. It identifies who needs attention, who needs help, what needs to be improved and ways this could be accomplished. Then, what is heard must be understood so the right actions can be taken at the right time.
Which brings us neatly to number two - learn. There is much to be learnt from listening and a willingness to learn allows organisations to develop the ability to adapt, to grow - and to survive in today's continual upheaval.
Finally, number three: remember. Listen, learn - and remember what was necessary to move closer to your purpose as an organisation. Remember where you started, what you hoped to achieve in those early days and, most importantly, remember the mistakes you've made along the way. What have you learnt from those mistakes? What did you have to do in order to correct them? How will it inform your progress in the future.
Three simple resolutions that could, together, make your organisation a better - and more effective - place to be. I wish you great resolve and great success for 2022.
Here we are again - level four lockdown as the Delta strain arrives in New Zealand. A hard job lies ahead for the Government this time around. Last time when the whole country went into lockdown there was shock, there was uncertainty, there was denial - but there was a willingness to listen to what Jacinda Ardern and her ministers had to say.
This time, everyone is tired. Everyone thinks they know what to do or has an opinion on what should be done. There is less willingness to listen and certainly less willingness to comply.
Communicating in a crisis is hard and exhausting. Maintaining crisis communication over months and years and hitting the right tone to address current sentiment is a huge ask - and you can see the weariness etched on the faces at the podium pandemic press conferences.
It's going to be hard to hold their nerve and even harder to control the virus, keep people informed and maintain the high levels of trust experienced to date. Mask up, stay safe, take care - and listen hard. It might make all the difference.
Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash
There’s a lot of talk about storytelling, behaviour change, social purpose and what organisations are doing to connect with their ‘target audiences’. Some of the solutions are quite grand, some extraordinarily expensive and some seemingly simple - but none of them are really solutions as they forget to address the most important aspect of any activity - who is it for and why?
Often the activities in questions are actually undertaken for the organisation itself so it can tick the box that says ‘we communicated’ but just sending stuff out doesn’t mean communication has taken place - it means you have sent stuff out.
Before you pick up a pen, start a plan, devise a strategy you have to know the who and why of what you are doing. There is no such thing as ‘the public’ and personally, I believe the description of people as ‘target audiences’ is something that should be consigned to mid-20th century history as a relic from the advertising industry. If you doubt the assertion that 'the public' doesn't exist, take a moment and consider how many different groups of people your organisation interacts with on a daily basis. Are they all the same? No. Do they all hold the same beliefs and interests? No. Do they all interact with you for the same reasons? No. So why would you expect the same story, told in the same way in the one place to engage with them all? You have to break it down and really understand the people who hold your organisation's licence to operate then you can start to plan, share stories, develop connections because there will be real people involved - not just organisational assumption and bias.
We tell stories for people, not at them and there’s a significant difference between ‘communicating to’ and ‘speaking with’ - one approach imposes information on a group while the other seeks to engage.
My mid-winter tip is to warm up your understanding of the people your organisation serves. Undertake regular community audits, build personas, ask for their views. There are many tools out there that make this critically important process much easier than it used to be so explore and play - it will be time very well spent.
Cornwall’s coastline has dominated the world view this week as wealthy nations gather for the G7 summit. We’ve seen photos galore of the great and good touching elbows, wearing masks, and presenting us with platitudes on all manner of issues.
Despite the hard work of the UK’s government communicators to deliver this event during the pandemic, the gathering had something of a hollow ring to it and, when you look at the paperwork, there’s a real disconnect between ideas and delivery. Growing up on the outskirts of East London, the expression my old neighbour would have used for the summit participants would have been ‘all mouth and no trousers’ - which translates to all talk and no action.
From the outset, my heart went out to the people of Cornwall - trying so hard to keep COVID19 at bay but faced with an influx of so many from places raddled by the disease. From the citizen’s perspective, the antics of Boris Johnson and others during the meeting left me frustrated and annoyed as the whole meeting could - and should - have been done virtually.
The cost of the event is enormous. Security is likely to cost NZD$135,883,218 and the whole event will push past NZD$200m. In straightened times, when belts have to be tightened and resources scarce how can such expenditure be justified? Last month, the UK Parliament offered a measly 1% pay rise to the nurses who cared for the country through COVID19. I’m sure a virtual meeting would have saved millions and made possible an improved and more appropriate pay rise.
Then there’s big ideas. Again, the UK communicators have done a great job, carefully preparing statements and papers every step of the way but read them through and you’ll find more platitudes than purpose. Good communication is no substitute for inaction and the likely outcome from the summit, based on past performance, is that it will be all talk and no implementation. It will be interesting to track whether any practical improvements are made by the end of 2021 - or even 2022.
The incongruity of the world’s rich and powerful making a flying visit to the UK in order to eat, drink and talk by the seaside will not have been lost on those watching - perhaps from a COVID bedside, a locked-down household, a TV screen in the unemployment office or a mental health ward.
Let’s hope there were some full and frank discussions among the G7 members and their guests on the duties and responsibilities of leadership and, hopefully, such discussions prompt a refreshed approach. At least it would be a useful outcome and one preferable to the pompous posturing we’ve witnessed at this costly non-event.
Image source and credit - G7 2021 Public Images/David Fisher
Have you ever finished a really good story and found yourself missing the characters? They’ve become your friends, bound to you forever as you have been immersed in their world? I know I have - and I still miss some of them, occasionally re-reading well-worn books just to check in and see if everyone's ok.
Sadly, the same engagement won’t be found in organisational storytelling. Even though we have a proliferation of channels and a multitude of means to tell a good story, they mostly go untold, unread and ignored.
I’ve spent the last six weeks with a variety of organisations working with them on their storytelling, helping their public relations and communications teams overcome some of the frustrations that lock up a good story and prevent their stakeholders from getting to know - and understand - the organisation’s heroes - and occasional villains.
In leadership sessions, authenticity is a prized quality, with the majority of would-be organisational leaders doing their utmost to be as authentic as possible but put them back into the workplace and in an instant, the transformational strengths of transparency, clarity and purpose disappear into the ether in favour of old-fashioned command-and-control. This means the real stories are seldom told, unceremoniously booted out in favour of ‘things we think we should say’ rather than ‘things that actually mean something to stakeholders’.
Organisations - be they government, businesses, charities, schools - default to the provision of information rather than telling the story of who they are and what they do for those they serve. The problem with information is that it is passive, is generally hard to find, it is presented for the organisation and there’s generally a lot of it that is very hard for the ‘outsider’ to piece together.
Stories on the other hand are active. They go walkabout and they are for somebody - designed to help them, connect or engage. Stories explain and create meaning. They show us your world and invite us to build - or maintain - a relationship with you.
My tip of the month is don’t be sitting comfortably churning out information. Reimagine storytelling for your business. Break the information chains that restrict understanding. Show us your characters and how they build your world. Engage me in such a way that I miss your organisation and actively seek you out. Tell me a story that changes my mind, makes me think differently or helps me understand. That’s our job to do - and to do it well.
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.