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'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.
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.
As organisations fight to stay relevant and corporate 'purpose' falls under the microscope, I had the great pleasure and privilege to speak with Toni Muzi Falconi, one of the world's leading public relations professionals, as part of the International FERPI webinar series. We covered organisational purpose, internal communication and the different approaches that have been adopted during the pandemic - a thought provoking conversation which I share with you here.
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.