Parliament is suspended in the UK. A communications staffer is marched from Downing Street under police escort. Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn is harangued in Parliamentary corridors. Tory MPs who voted with the opposition are sacked. The unravelling - the loss of a system's licence to operate - has begun. And begun quite deliberately.
Power has been put ahead of people and functional relationships are a thing of the past as autocracy replaces public accountability in the UK. Observing all the strands of disfunction being pulled together it seems evident that the next move will be to encourage further dissension on the streets so that 'emergency powers' can be implemented and, at that point, we can probably declare UK democracy dead as Cummings pushes the UK's countries towards uncivil war and the system breakdown he seems to desire.
It has nothing to do with Brexit - that is simply a convenient scapegoat for years of austerity and poor government. It is instead a screen for Cummings and Co to manipulate an election so they can secure power for the few and misery for the many.
Aside from the difficulties the country faces, the current situation, stoked and fuelled a select group of mainstream media moguls already proven to wield too much power and influence, will put communications practitioners within UK's government in a very difficult position. The electioneering has already begun judging from the tweets, updates and photo ops coming out of No. 10 so the communications teams will be faced with some tough choices in the shutdown period - is the material campaign material or government communications, the latter being a valid use of their time. It's going to get a whole lot messier in the next few weeks.
PRINZ conference this week had the theme 'changing mindsets' supported by an eclectic group of speakers from inside and outside public relations and communication management. Most memorable for me was Jackie Clark, founder of The Aunties, a charity supporting women affected by domestic violence that meets needs with love. She spoke about her work, her experience, what keeps her going and what we should be doing to change things. She commanded the room, made us think, made us laugh and challenged us all. An amazing woman, awarded the Queen's Service Medal and voted Supreme Winner of the 2018 New Zealand Women of Influence awards. Minds were definitely changed.
One of her instructions has stayed with me. 'Claim your space', she urged. An instruction that's been rattling around in my mind ever since - because generally, as a profession, we really don't claim our space at all. We apologise for being here - even though what we do has immense value. We laugh off the worst portrayals of who we are and what we do - even though they are frequently offensive, untrue and often misogynistic. We allow ourselves to be seen through the lens of others - an ancient black-and-white image from another time, edges frayed by misunderstanding and misconception. All of which is not without irony given what we do - and what we do I've explained in another post.
How then do we claim our space? Recognising and championing what we do has to be the first step. Once again at a conference I found myself gnashing my teeth in frustration as some speakers (who hadn't done their homework) pushed us into the media relations box and closed the lid. Digital divas, behavioural economists, media measurement gurus lined up to talk to their own imagined version of who we are and what we do. I know the reasons why this happens and it's a conversation-for-conversion I've been having for most of my professional life - but the time really is now for us to claim our professional space. To do this successfully we need to be backed by our associations, like PRINZ, like CIPR and of course Global Alliance. We build the relationships necessary for organisations to keep their licence to operate. This involves effective communication, good behaviour and a developed understanding. Simple, easy to understand. Tough to do but we do it well.
We could let the misapprehensions persist or we can help people understand that it's more than order taking, word processing, content creation. Much more. Professional development will help. Being a lifelong learner will help. Most of all it takes courage to recognise who we are, stop apologising, reset the picture and claim our space - before it is occupied by someone else.
Worse than Boris Johnson clawing his way to power as UK Prime Minister is the news that he has appointed Dominic Cummings as his chief 'special adviser'. If you are unfamiliar with Mr Cummings, he was the mastermind behind the campaign that led to the Brexit referendum result. Previously Mr Cummings had been a special adviser to Michael Gove when he was head of Education in the UK.
Mr Cummings is a very, very smart man. Spend some time reading his blog (particularly this post which he leads with T S Eliot's The Hollow Men) and, if you work in public relations and communication management anywhere in the world, familiarise yourself with some of his views on our work. He has been portrayed by Benedict Cumberbatch in Brexit: The Uncivil War, which examined how manipulated, misleading and false information was compiled and distributed by the campaign organisers leading ultimately to a referendum result that subsequently tipped the UK into political chaos.
Along with the likes of Steve Bannon, Mr Cummings is intent on breaking systems and remaking society in the image he feels we deserve. His impatience and fractiousness with the conventional machinery of Whitehall seeps into his blog posts and pours into his actions. It is in some ways a justifiable impatience and I would generally agree that impenetrable and established organisations that operate 'for the sake of the system' need to be shaken, changed, improved and modernised but the motivation should be for the betterment of society rather than to prove a point or demonstrate how clever you are.
So why am I fearful? I am fearful because in his public expression of intent, his reformation of the UK's political system is an intellectual exercise motivated by a strong desire to prove he is unequivocally right about pretty much everything. I am fearful because the UK has an unelected, unqualified leader, known for his unruly, unreliable and narcissistic behaviours, who has instructed the machinery of government to be driven by an unelected adviser determined to break systems he abhors. I'm fearful for everyone who lives and works in the UK, for people on the Irish border, for people in Scotland, Wales and England who will have to deal with the disruption and difficulties about to ensue because, as with everything, it will be the people at the food banks who will be most affected by the machinations and applied intellectualism of the elite. It will be the families struggling to stay in their homes who will find the wolf at the door. It will be those seeking refuge and respite who will be pushed away and discarded. And it will be those who truly seek change who will find their way blocked, barricaded and refused as systems are rejigged to ensure power remains with the few at the ongoing expense of the many.
As for good communication, there is little hope of transparent engagement with publics. It will revolve around command and control. It will revolve around constructed communication designed to obfuscate and bewilder. As a journalist Johnson's perspectives waxed and waned entirely on the whim of his paymasters. As a prime minister, being good with words is not enough - ways and means must be found to end the division and nationalistic hatred so adroitly sown by both Johnson and Cummings during their Brexit campaign. A campaign fuelled by data analysis and algorithmic targeting designed to tap into the base emotions of the small minority needed to swing a vote that allowed some to cling to power and some the opportunity to break a system they despise. And I am fearful that the aims and ambitions of these new hollow men revolve around the manufacture of a new, impenetrable elite that values power at any cost.
AN UPDATE: Within 24 hours of Mr Cummings' appointment, Facebook was flooded with ads for the Conservative Party. The ruling party isn't planning for Brexit, it is planning for an election. This is a frighteningly clear example of data targeting being used to identify and exploit the emotional and economic vulnerabilities of marginal groups with a view to manipulating election results in order to retain power.
There's a lot that's still right with Twitter and I'd include tweetchats as one of those things. Tweetchats provide the opportunity to converse with anyone, anywhere, anytime on pretty much any subject you like. There have always been chats concerning public relations and communication and recently I joined the regular #PowerandInfluence conversation run by Ella Minty.
The discussion - and the reason for bringing it here - centred on the question of whether public relations should be regulated. It's a discussion I've had many times over the years (and suspect I will have again) but it got me thinking about the progress we've made as a profession and whether now is the hour for regulation.
Public relations and communication makes a real difference to organisations of all types. Unfortunately, this can be for good - or for bad. Anyone can stick a sign on the door saying they're 'in public relations', without qualification, licence or even a basic skill set. They are also able to practice what they believe is 'PR' - often not 'PR' at all, but a weird publicity-mainstream media hybrid. In this scenario, there is no regulation, accreditation and qualifications are optional and, as a result, there are many people out there providing services that are at best misleading and at worst unscrupulous. That's a problem for everyone, not just the professional practitioners who have studied hard, gained qualifications, accreditation and subscribe to ethical practice by way of their national association or industry body code of ethics.
Historically, some countries have licensed practice but not without controversy, as, in some cases, government has regulated practice to restrict and control information - again, not as it should be.
Personally, I believe we should be regulated but the discussion around what type of model would work will, I suspect, continue for some time. There are models that could be adapted and applied, for instance, here in New Zealand, the real estate industry has an independent regulatory body. Every working agent must gain a licence in order to work, the licence is awarded on successful completion of study, followed by a probation and must be renewed annually. Such a system for public relations and communication management would give assurance of good conduct, improve understanding as to what we do and why we do it and provide a quality benchmark for both recruitment and consultancy.
It's a step forward that is long overdue.
Musing on measurement and evaluation led me to some recent conversations around public relations and its purpose. Silly of me not to have revisited the topic in a while but I truly forget that people still paddle around in the tactical shallows and miss the ocean of opportunity right in front of them.
There is still a propensity in western public relations practice to equate PR with mainstream media relations. It's a historical hangover from the time when media coverage was the only visible output and also because of the many journalists who wandered over from newspapers to work in the field - years ago, I made just that journey. Trouble is, those who move into public relations often never move on from journalism and fail to recognise that public relations is a different job entirely. The other problem is that many organisations don't understand (or, quite frankly, have no idea) as to the purpose and value of public relations. It has been variously defined - there's a bit of last century research that is generally trotted out which found hundreds of definitions - but life's moved on and there is plenty of current research that identifies quite correctly that public relations is concerned with relationships. Hardly a surprise when you consider the name of our profession.
The definition I've developed and advised after many years working in the field is this: public relations builds and sustains the relationships needed to maintain a licence to operate. Simple, straightforward and does what it says on the tin. But then you get arguments around communication v. public relations and all points in between. 'No, I do reputation', says one. 'No, I do corporate comms' says another. 'Wait', yells someone from the back, 'it's internal relations we should be highlighting'. The secret is there is no secret - everyone is right. What isn't right is their context - they are only seeing one part of the whole - which is why I developed the PR Atom pictured above to help visualise how it all fits together.
Relationships are at the heart of what we do. Without good relationships, with their components of trust, mutuality, commitment, loyalty, satisfaction and - my addition - reputation, organisations of all types will lose their licence to operate. Additionally, we function (for the moment at least) in a relationship economy. However, good relationships don't just happen, which is where our work is supported by the essential elements of communication, behaviour and understanding. All relationships need good communication, a clear understanding of each party involved plus good and appropriate behaviour from everyone. As relationships have their components, so too do the other elements. Practitioners - and their organisations - have to be adept at written, oral, visual and experiential communication, across channels and cultures. Our organisation or client behaviour must be ethical, fair, contribute value to society and be considerate of our stakeholders - which includes employees, internal relations and the employee experience. All these elements work together, constantly in motion to help fulfil our purpose. Practitioners may specialise in one or more areas of activity, indeed they may focus entirely on a single aspect or channel but if they lose sight of the whole, ignore the bigger picture and don't understand the purpose then they end up bogged down in the tactical, becoming order takers stuck on the hamster wheel of sending stuff out. Critically, working in the shallows leaves practitioners at seriously disadvantaged when crisis strikes or issues evolve as they'll be isolated from the rest of the organisation.
If you've recently joined our profession, a very warm welcome to you. I hope you enjoy this world of work where issues collide and there is something new to learn every day. My advice would be don't get stuck in the past, when practice was (in western countries at least) confined to publicity, media relations or lesser activities. Be curious. Be an evolved practitioner. See the whole. There are all sorts of places to find out more - there's a 'What is PR' page on this site for your reference and, last year, the Global Alliance published the Global Capabilities Framework which identifies the competencies we should seek to develop. Check it out and see the real scope of your work, escape the shallows and make a real difference to the communities and societies we serve.
It was my great privilege to be invited to speak at the Forum Humas BUMN 'Future of PR' Congress held in Bandung during March. FHBUMN is a forum for public relations practitioners from all the state-owned enterprises in Indonesia, dedicated to developing knowledge and competencies and improving sector performance. FHBUMN is an affiliate of the ASEAN PR Network which is a member of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and Communication Management.
At the main congress I spoke about artificial intelligence and public relations, with a particular focus on ethics and societal implications. A couple of days beforehand, I also had the opportunity to meet many of Indonesia's public relations and communications professionals in person, delivering a workshop session for them on communication audits, research, measurement and evaluation.
My host, and chairperson of FHBUMN Congress 2019, Nurlaela Arief, (pictured front row, fourth from left) led our post-presentation discussions on AI in PR. With a recently published book on AI in PR, Nurlaela is an acknowledged expert on the topic in Indonesia and it was a fascinating journey exploring how public relations practice is embracing and adapting - or not - to the challenges the emergent technologies bring to our profession. We also had the great benefit of Professor Anne Gregory's expertise, bringing perspectives from the UK and some of the thinking from the CIPR's #AIinPR report which I also contributed to last year.
It was heartening to have so many discussions on the subject and gain a better understanding as to how AI is being approached by practitioners in Indonesia - and I look forward to many more.
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.
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.
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.
About Think Forward
Think Forward ponders PR questions and curates current know-how