Unprecedented is a word that's been whipped to death over the last twelve weeks, generally by governments flogging the dead horse of failure as their lame excuse for ineptitude before and during the current pandemic. Unprecedented however, does not excuse unprepared, as it is the duty of all governments to provide and plan for emergencies, protect public health and well-being.
It's a known part of the job. It's the duty of government. It's what they sign up for when they're voted in. When emergencies occur governments must be ready and able to deal with whatever form it takes and it is inexcusable when they don't. There is no excuse good enough to cover the levels of incompetence we've witnessed, particularly when global pandemic has been on the risk index for years.
I found myself questioning whether certain governments around the world should be held accountable on the grounds of criminal negligence, given they've butchered COVID-19 crisis management so badly their people have paid with their lives and livelihoods. I also found myself asking whether charges of criminal negligence could conceivably be extended to include some mainstream media outlets like Fox News in the US or the tabloids in the UK as well as those responsible for communicating government intent.
The definition of criminal negligence varies from country to country but in negligence alone, common factors include a breach of duty which causes the plaintiff to suffer harm. Criminal negligence refers to conduct when a person ignores a known or obvious risk or disregards the safety of others. It involves knowledge of a danger and is more than a mistake or accident.
In the UK, Public Health England declares in its 2020 - 2025 strategic plan that 'our first duty is to keep people safe. Threats from environmental hazards and infectious disease remain great at home and from overseas. We work to prevent risks from materialising and reduce harm when they do. PHE has the capability to respond to emergencies and incidents round the clock, 365 days a year'. Yet in the weeks that have led to 40,000 deaths in the UK (at the time of writing) the politicians were insouciant, dismissive and disdainful of COVID-19 as it began its lethal journey through the kingdom. They were unprepared when they should have been prepared, ignored advice that would have prevented thousands of deaths and continue to offer few solutions or workable strategies to protect their citizens and fulfil their duty as a government. A similar picture has been presented in the USA as the federal government there, led by an obfuscating president, fails in its duty to protect its citizens - the timeline of neglect has been well documented by national and global media outlets and, as with the UK, the daily death toll stands as an indictment of dangerous disregard. Johnson and Trump are not alone - elsewhere in the world, Bolsonaro coughs on his citizens and Belarusian President Lukashenko holds parades to upstage Putin, currently overseeing a Russia where again, citizens are dying in their thousands. Yet, despite the despots, those who actually care - the medical teams, the essential workers, the volunteers, the many brave and wonderful individuals - demonstrate the real meaning of duty as they bring courage and humanity to their work, saving the lives of all around them regardless of the hardship and difficulty they might personally face.
While dictators can lie in their beds and ignore the death and havoc around them, unaccountable to any, there is a chance that the autocrats and the bumblers might be called to account but, supported as they are by pliable mainstream media that push myths and mayhem into the mix, press spokespeople with little understanding of truth or fact, and government communicators who seem to work in apparent contradiction to their published code of conduct, their communications strategies and their duty of care, it is hard to see when anyone might be called to account for the tragedy wrought by their negligence.
Here in New Zealand we've been fortunate to have a government that eschewed strategies that would lead to thousands of deaths and instead, opted to 'go hard and go early' to protect people, work with them to stop transmission of the virus, communicating every step of the way and sticking to the plans. The plans have not been well met by everyone but the success of compassion over chaos sees us moving tentatively towards an easing of restrictions - although acutely aware of entering the 'second wave' danger zone. The government's duty of care and responsibility for the well-being of all New Zealanders was central to its strategy. I, for one, am grateful for their diligence and I weep, helpless, for those who continue to suffer and die because of the negligent.
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.
It's easy to fake. You might even give it a go. It will be used to change hearts, minds, lives and liberty and not for the better. Deepfake video is here - and it's here to stay.
Last week's widely shared 'deepfake' video of Mark Zuckerberg made global mainstream media headlines. It followed instances where others have had words put into their mouths and misleading images of them circulated across the web. The Zuckerberg video was, according to one of its creators, Bill Posters on Instagram, made as an artwork and released on his bill_posters_uk account as part of a series of AI generated video works. It was created, he explained, for Spectre, 'an immersive exploration of the digital influence industry, technology and democracy'. After the uproar, the creators received a 'misinformation' flag from Facebook and Instagram which de-prioritises videos on newsfeeds and searches. The irony is that the Brandalism Project run by the video's creators, sets out to question the power held by the tech giants and the influence of technologies and data shaping our understanding of the world around us.
It is hard enough for people to discern truth from lies when it comes to the written word, especially when lies are regularly propagated as truth by some. It is doubly hard for people to comprehend that training data used to develop machine learning is itself frequently riddled with bias that spills into active AI applications. The availability and access to technology that creates deepfake videos means discernment will be messy, perhaps even impossible, when we are faced with the many faces of fake. Unlike the Brandalism Project artworks, deepfake videos will not be neatly labelled as 'creations' and helpfully marked as fictitious. Videos will be created by all manner of people driven by all manner of intent. Words spoken by those we see in the frame (or the way in which the words are delivered) may contradict our knowledge of the person involved. But there they'll be, up close and personal, spouting words that perhaps incite hatred, confirm bias, undermine communities or organisations and, ultimately, destroy any remaining trust individuals and their communities have in the systems that are supposed to serve them. And what will happen if the person on screen is in fact dripping vitriol and hatred in a genuine, unaltered video? Will their position simply be dismissed as 'faked' later on?
Elections are on the horizon in many places next year and, as things stand, it is unlikely that 2020 will produce clarity of vision for anyone. Instead we will have to wade through mucky waters as deepfake videos flood societal consciousness. It is a serious and deeply disturbing concern.
This use of technology also presents a whole new challenge for public relations and communication practitioners involved in reputation guardianship. I question whether the majority of those working in this area are even aware of the dangers this technology poses, not just to their organisations but to the people and communities they serve. Samsung technology revealed last month can produce deepfake videos of the Mona Lisa - or your profile picture or, indeed, any still image. Given the predilection for shaming and outrage that has taken hold on the web in the last three years, anyone will be at risk from a stalker, troll or disgruntled critic. If we thought identity theft was a problem today, how will we cope when we see ourselves animated and voicing opinions that are the antithesis of our values and beliefs?
If we can't believe what we see - or worse, we unquestioningly decide to believe what we see - trust is dead. Not just in the media context in which the untruths and fakes are served to us but in society itself. An uncivil war sparked by make-believe and manipulation, fuelled by the power-hungry to the detriment of most.
My question to those charged with guarding reputations is simple - what's your plan? What are you doing now, today, to meet this very specific challenge presented to us by those who have developed this particular artificial intelligence capability? What are the professional bodies for public relations and communications doing to address this clear and present danger? How are our ethical codes being updated to ensure good, transparent behaviours? What are our university courses and professional development sessions doing to equip our future practitioners? Looking at current offerings around the world, I'd suggest nobody (in any field) is doing enough - and playing catch-up isn't an option.
Photo by Christian Gertenbach on Unsplash
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.
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.