In a world turned upside down, how do you develop strategies to navigate uncertain times? How do you develop strategic relationships that will help you survive and thrive in times of global recession? Available early July, our new course, Navigators, gives you the opportunity to find out how.
I've been looking ahead these last few months and, as we have slowly worked our way through lockdowns, dramatic societal change and new ways of operating, I've had the privilege and opportunity to guide fellow practitioners through the twists and turns of strategy development, examining some of the changes we face and how best to meet them.
We must constantly challenge ourselves to explore new approaches and new thinking so we can help our organisations make sense of what's ahead and maintain the relationships they need to maintain their licence to operate. Understanding the process, looking beyond the tactical - the 'sending out stuff' - is critical if our discipline is to remain relevant.
I hope you'll find this guided professional development session both useful and informative. Old rules don't apply - take some time to navigate the new ones.
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.
Today's World Health Organisation declaration of pandemic changes the game. Life is going to be very different during this pandemic stage and down the track, we'll be viewing life in two separate chunks - pre-COVID-19 and post-COVID-19. Our post-COVID-19 society and economy will look very different.
I've put together the COVID-19 resource for small businesses and solo communicators and you can get that here. It will be updated regularly as situations develop and there's useful information for anyone involved with communications right now.
Another urgency for us isn't just dealing with the situation we are faced with now - we need to look beyond the now and into what will be the 'new normal' in the years ahead.
The 'flatten the curve' graph has been widely shared and illustrates what happens without intevention - flattening the curve helps reduce impact on health services - but there is another curve that needs the attention of those of us outside the health system - the confidence curve. As the pandemic heightens and spreads, confidence and trust in organisations, social and economic systems rapidly diminishes.
We all need to tend to this curve throughout the crisis phase as, without care, it will extend far longer than the pandemic and, together with trust, must be smoothed and sent upwards so when all are well, societies can recover and regroup - albeit in a very different way to the way we've been operating for the best part of a century.
The post-COVID19 world will be very different, challenging and require a lot of work from all of us to create what will essentially be new systems and - hopefully - an improved society.
Wherever you are in the world, I hope you stay well, stay informed and stay kind.
We appreciate good leadership. Especially in times of crisis, times of hardship and times of pain - but what does good leadership look like in today's world? A world where leaders can often be harsh, bullying and seemingly take great pleasure insulting those they purport to lead?
I took a look at good leadership when I was honoured to present at 'PR Face Off', Malaysia's international public relations conference held in Kuala Lumpur.
I spoke particularly about the leadership shown by the New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern at the time of the Christchurch Terrorist Attack in March this year. During that period of time the world saw a very different display of leadership - one that showed strength through compassion, resolve born of tragedy.
It is rare to see such a visible shift in leadership styles but it was a welcome shift. So many people around the world have been ground down by their leadership, rather than lifted up. Shouted over, rather than being heard.
One of the key elements of public relations practice is developing understanding and a vital part of that understanding is empathy. Crisis plans often a filled with the inherently practical and sadly there are few that look at, or include empathy, kindness, compassion and resilience - yet they should. Any crisis will see emotions run high and for leaders, how they deal with those emotions forms a critical part of their crisis response.
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.
A month in to Dominic Cummings reign as chief aid to UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and chaos is beginning to boil over.
In his blog, Cummings regularly records his desire to break systems, quoting military philosophy as justification for his arguments. His aim, it seems, is to break a system he dislikes and despises and, it would seem, he happily uses any means to achieve his aims.
This is not a political blog. It is one concerned with public relations and communication - the building of relationships that give organisations their licence to operate supported by effective communication, knowledge, understanding and ethical behaviour. In the video below, Cummings explains at the 2017 Ogilvy Nudgestock conference the methods employed to achieve a win in the UK referendum concerning participation in the EU - known now as the Brexit Referendum. If, as I am, you are involved in public relations and communication, then I'd urge you to watch the whole thing so you can understand the deliberate, planned and blatant behavioural manipulation that is in progress right now, working towards a complete system breakdown of benefit only to its perpetrators.
In the video, Cummings takes you through the tricks and tactics he deployed in order to - in his own words at various points in the presentation - 'provoke rage...neutralise...put the boot in'. The seven million people exposed to the 1.5bn targeted ads over the short period of time pre-referendum is peanuts compared to what's ahead in the UK - and other countries around the world - as elections, media, citizens, public psychology and governing systems are blatantly manipulated for private gain. Cummings' work appears to be a (pseudo) intellectual exercise centred on ways to break the system he reviles.
What's going on today behind the doors of 10 Downing Street has nothing to do with the rights and wrongs of being in or out of Europe. It has nothing to do with the health and wellbeing of the UK population. It has everything to do with the selfish and power-hungry wanting their own way, shamelessly stoking division and hatred and using unethical and underhand practices to do so
Photo by Matthew T Rader on Unsplash
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.
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'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
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.