It’s been a tragic start to the year. In just a few weeks we’ve seen devastating natural disasters around the world, killing thousands and affecting millions of people. Crisis has rolled into crisis and here in New Zealand we’ve just weathered our third major climate event since the year began with Cyclone Gabrielle taking lives and destroying homes and businesses. We’ve also seen some very different styles and approaches to leadership communication and this prompted one of the sections in this month’s PR Horizons update which looks at some of the highs and lows of crisis communication witnessed through each event and includes some tips for dealing with difficult leaders.
While crises have dominated collective thinking and focus - and rightly so - there have been other events on the horizon, including rapid developments in artificial intelligence, particularly with regard to search and two of the internet giants going head to head. The tussle for control between Microsoft and Google is discussed, along with implications of evolving AI for practitioners plus we touch on the business of trust, misinformation and rumour.
For a short time, the February briefing is free access for subscribers and you can take a look here.
I hope it gives you some food for thought and a chance to reflect on some of the issues and horizons we need to watch this month.
It was my privilege this month to speak at the International Public Relations Summit in Bali and I thought it might be useful to share some of my presentation here - particularly the thoughts on DALL-E, the reliability of data and the bias inherent in AI. Text and some of the images below - I hope it gives you some food for thought.
Kia ora, good morning everyone and thank you Ibu Elizabeth for your kind introduction and I would like to take this opportunity to thank you for all the work you have done to elevate the profession over many years, particularly through this event. I am very grateful to be here and have the opportunity to speak together today.
Before I begin I would like to offer my condolences for the devastating loss of life caused by the earthquake this week. My heart goes out to all those who have lost loved ones, to those still searching for friends and family and those involved with the rescue and recovery work. It is pertinent that we are going to be discussing trust this morning as the enormous effort to help those so deeply affected by this disaster highlights that we can still trust the goodness, bravery and care of our fellow humans.
As a society - global or local - we can’t function if we don’t trust each other and the ways in which those bonds of trust are formed have shifted and changed. As we know, trust is central to the work we do, which is building and sustaining the relationships we need to maintain our licence to operate - the permission we are given to do the things we do. Trust is one of the agreed and measurable components of our relationships - the others being satisfaction, commitment, loyalty, mutuality - and I add reputation as a reputation, good or bad, will either hinder or help the start or demise of a relationship.
So I thought a really good place to start would be with some sheep. As you may know, I am coming to you from New Zealand where we have our fair share of sheep, scenery and sparkling seas. These sheep I’m going to introduce you to are not any old sheep - because they pose the question ‘are they trustworthy sheep’? You see, they were created by DALL E - an artificial intelligence system that creates art and images from text. I simply told the AI engine what I want to see and it has presented me with options. Pretty cute eh - couple of sheep, enjoying the sea view underneath a rainbow. Where’s the harm? The next ‘image’ I requested was for public relations professionals at work - and I got these.
But my final request was for public relations leaders at work - and look what DALL E served me. Images based on data provided and loaded with bias.
The pandemic accelerated digital transformation in organisations, with much automation and reliance on data. Learning engines have been deployed across sectors - everything from DALL E style images to recruitment but with the deployment comes bias, burrowing its way into systems and data because the AI we get is only as good as the data on which it is based and if that data is preloaded with bias, the actions undertaken as a result will not be trustworthy - or accurate. This then proves something of a quandary for our leaders as they will be guiding us based on inaccurate data capable of creating stereotypes with the potential for societal harm.
Back in 2002 I had high hopes for digital engagement - blogs were the primary form of online connection (along with forums, message boards and other tech now considered archaic). The embryonic online world removed the filters and barriers to communication and allowed us to connect directly to our communities, our customers and stakeholders. Leap forward to 2012 when Elizabeth began this series of events and leaders had realised the power of digital engagement with authenticity and trustworthiness online approaching its peak. We moved beyond direct communication, binding our lives to the cloud, using it to meet many of our needs and wants. But, from 2015, the souring of tone, the bullying behaviour and exploitation of others began to accelerate. We saw the trolls come out in force, we saw bad actors manipulate data for profit and gain, we saw political candidates launch an onslaught of hateful speech, unleash the curse of misinformation and open the doors wide to conspiracy theorists. Some have deliberately exploited the loopholes and shortcomings of social media, simultaneously reducing trust to rubble or inspiring their followers to take to the streets - the digital environment is a now place of great contradictions where we are capable of amazing or terrible things, depending on the choices we make and the values we hold. Digital transformation accelerated in 2020 with the arrival of COVID19 - a Deloitte CEO study reported 77% of them had pushed forward digital initiatives as a result of the pandemic. We became used to connecting like this and had to learn to trust the strength of our connections - both literal and figurative.
Today, as people seek to connect with trustworthy information, organisations and people, the online environment is once more fragmenting - this time into closed communities of interest, run on platforms like sub stack or community platforms like guild. Research into trust is regularly undertaken - indeed Adrian has taken us through some of Edelman’s trust findings this morning - and they are not alone. Ongoing monitoring of trust by researchers at Our World in Data demonstrates the correlation between levels of interpersonal trust - how much we trust each other - and other areas of trust such as in government and media. The levels we saw in 2020 are probably very different in 2022 but one constant result is that countries with high levels of interpersonal trust were also more stable, safer, and civil discourse was still - well, civil.
Sadly, online engagement has undermined societal trust significantly in the last decade and this distrust has been thrown into sharp relief in the last two years as we have navigated the pandemic. The ‘infodemic’ that resulted from COVID19 and its management created deep cracks in social cohesion, even in those countries with previously high levels of civil discourse, resulting in unrest and violence. Ongoing developments on the many social networks have worsened the situation - the Elon Musk takeover of Twitter does nothing to increase hope for change and the Facebook controversies concerning privacy, accuracy, bias, hate speech and other topics fans the flames of division.
So what is our part in all this? As public relations and communication professionals we have an ethical duty of care to ensure that data used by our organisation is clean, accurate and unbiased. We have a duty of care to equip our leaders with the tools they need to speak and act honestly and transparently in the digital environment and we have a duty of care to help our organisations, our stakeholders and our communities of interest to navigate the turbulent waters that await them each time they are online - which for most people, is most of their time.
This may seem a little bleak when my topic is enabling trust in the digital environment but we have to understand where trust is being disabled in order for us to create or encourage circumstances where trust can take root and thrive.
The people who operate the platforms and networks we use have a great responsibility but we have traded our privacy and in some cases civility for access to the platforms. As has been said so often, the product peddled by the networks is us. But the new, evolved product isn’t simply ‘us’, it is our attention, it is our emotion, it is our state of mind, gripped and manipulated by algorithms that seem to know us better than we know ourselves. Algorithms that are tweaked and tinkered with so they serve us controversy that prompts us to engage, allowing our attention to be gobbled up by advertisers. Given this known manipulation, should our organisations follow the lead of those who ran a Facebook advertising boycott? Withdrawing ad revenues may not seem to0 great an action for these commercial companies but it certainly has a significant impact on reputation, stock prices and hopefully moderation of operations.
As organisations seemingly move into a new ‘golden age’ of purpose - having forgotten all about it for a few decades - and are now attempting to align their purpose and values, perhaps a good starting point from which to demonstrate this renewed dedication is to start by cleaning up their act online and not using technology for dubious purposes. For example, there’s a row here this morning concerning a supermarket chain that has deployed facial recognition technology in a bid to combat shoplifters but there has been a lack of transparency about that deployment, the use of data and long term consequences of the data acquisition - and quite rightly they have been called out for this behaviour.
Instead of capturing faces how about building trust through communities instead - we have the tech to do this. How about we use data responsibly and redraw our digital terms of engagement? Because enabling trust online isn’t about shiny new tech, artistic artificial intelligence or great reviews on Google - it is, as it has always been, about the way we behave, the choices we make and the genuine desire to build a fair and equitable society. Enabling trust online is up to us - let’s discuss how we can make a start today.
I had my second COVID19 vaccination today and felt very grateful to be in a place where I could end the day fully vaccinated. The pace of vaccination has quickened since we went into lockdowns of varying levels last month and no doubt it will continue to increase in the coming weeks.
Surprisingly - or maybe not surprisingly - there is still great resistance to this vaccine in certain pockets of society. Much of that resistance is fuelled by misinformation - or outright disinformation - which is where the value of good communication cannot be underestimated.
Trust underpins relationships and good communication helps to build that trust. When those determined to undermine the safety of others for their own gain are amplified it becomes much harder for the truth to wriggle into people's ears.
Government communications here in New Zealand have weakened considerably during this particular phase of the pandemic - messages are mixed, often contradictory and frequently hushed beneath the clamour of those shouting down and undermining the benefits of preventative medicine. When strategies wobble, communication lines begin to fray and, as it stands today, the fraying line is approaching maximum tension.
From the start, leaders took a health-first approach and, in doing so, saved thousands of lives. As the pandemic wears on, the strategy is beginning to wear thin which is very sad to see as a change at this point will, undoubtedly, have serious consequences. Firm up the strategy, explain why it works and communicate not by 'rote' and 'message' but by developing a genuine connection with people, addressing the doubts, fears and emotions. Hard to do when crisis communication has been the norm for almost two years (that's not counting the White Island tragedy or the Christchurch Terror Attack) and most of the team are exhausted. In the face of all the naysayers, everyone should be reminded that we have lost 28 lives to COVID here, we can still count the cases and track most of them to source. All the other countries now being referred to as 'moving out of COVID' or easing restrictions are still counting tens of thousands of cases a day and hundreds - if not thousands - of daily deaths.
Best advice - stick to the health-first strategy, recharge the team, swap them out for other communicators, tune in to communities rather than mainstream media, and develop a response based on listening to the reluctant, the frightened and the supporters that will overcome the anti-vax noise.
Photo by Mufid Majnun on Unsplash
New dawns always brim with hope - the dawn in the picture is from the start of the year when we decided to take a sunrise stroll on the beach. Hope is the magic ingredient that keeps us afloat in the stormy months we've navigated and the stormy months ahead and, although this time of year is generally awash with predictions of what's to come, I thought I'd spend a moment reflecting on how we need to equip ourselves to face the next dawn rather than ruminate on what might be.
There's no magical transition point as the year turns. No moment when all becomes well or difficulties are suddenly resolved. It is, after all, simply a date. But dates give us horizons, give us something to hope for and look towards which is why 2021 has been greeted with relish by so many. We have to remember though that many people around the world count things differently, have different dates of hope so the horizons shift and change, depending on your situation and your perspective.
In the US, for example, many had hoped that the transition to a new year would have seen a shift in focus from November's election to the pandemic that has cut a swath through the lives of so many, reaping havoc and death with little support from those ostensibly in charge. A similar picture can be seen in the UK, struggling under a new strain but also bowed down by the incompetence of its leadership. It doesn't take a fortune teller to divine that life is going to be very hard in the year ahead so what - as professionals charged with making sense of situations for the communities we serve - can we do? What do we need to do in order to smooth the path ahead? Here's five ways we can think beyond the horizon and help others move forward in 2021.
It's very easy to get comfortable, to view the world around us in the same way but we have to remember that change is constant. The pace of change increases during a crisis and a global crisis such as COVID19 sees even greater acceleration and, although humans forget that change is constant, this acceleration is often too much for them to cope with. You might enjoy being a passenger in a car but when the driver takes the speed way beyond the agreed limit, comfort is removed. We can't go into 2021 as we have gone into the years that preceded it and, in writing that, I am mindful that for millions around the world, new year horizons over many decades have been mired in violence, disruption, disease and disadvantage, so the 'entering a new year as never before' is perhaps applicable to the 'richer' nations that have enjoyed the privilege of reasonable social stability until now. As relationship builders and communicators we have to change our position, change our minds and change our behaviours. We have to understand what it is like to walk in someone else's shoes - indeed we need to know what it is like to walk with no shoes. We must develop a deep understanding as to the position of others in relation to our organisations and society. We won't be able to help others navigate what's ahead if we are always looking inside out - we must start looking outside in and determine the connection and relationships points we need to build or improve in order to fulfil whatever purpose is before us. So get out there - do some experiential research. Really get to know and understand your stakeholders and communities. Burst your own bubble (metaphorically if you are sheltering at home) and reach out to others. Be uncomfortable, share their discomfort, then devise strategies to help you coexist and provide comfort.
Changing position helps us to think differently. Ever been 'stuck' writing something or figuring out a thorny problem then gone for a walk that's triggered a eureka moment? If we stay in the same spot, we'll think the same things, stagnate and, ultimately, find ourselves bogged down, unable to move forward. Old thinking isn't going to fix today's problems. Old economic, political and societal models are not going to be appropriate or relevant in the years ahead - so think differently. Devise new ways forward.
If we've changed position and gathered our thoughts we need to share them with others to turn them from ideas into realities that will benefit those around us. In sharing our thoughts and ideas we need to move away from the long-held communication structures that equate information with power and shift into open communication that is clear, authentic and trustworthy. We must develop communication processes that value listening before speaking, discussion rather than instruction, collaboration rather than conflict. If we continue with the 'speak, instruct, conflict' model of authoritarian communication that has become so prevalent in recent years we will be on the road to nowhere, the horizon increasingly obscured. Our job - and it is an urgent job - is to help our organisations change their approach and show them how to communicate openly.
Be constantly curious
Two great ways to learn fast are making mistakes and asking great questions. It is inevitable that we will all make huge mistakes in the year ahead and my hope for you is that your mistakes are manageable ones. By thinking first - and I've always said the thinking we do takes the most time - the mistakes should be minimal, so think well and think beyond the now. Committing yourself to learning is to be constantly curious. It means asking the seemingly obvious question, asking the hard questions and asking the questions that will increase your knowledge and develop your understanding. There is always something new to learn and when we are exploring uncharted territory we will inevitably encounter things we don't know or have not experienced before - so be prepared to learn, learn fast and learn something new every day for the rest of your life.
I've been asked many times what is the most important characteristic or capability for a public relations or communications professional and my answer is always the same - courage. Having the courage to ask the hard questions, take a different position, think creatively and learn from mistakes is essential if we are to do our jobs ethically and well. In our world of constant change, the need for courage is a constant. It takes courage to challenge your boss over bad practice when you know that doing so could mean no job at all but it's got to be done, especially if the resulting change reduces inequity and restores trust. Bravery confronts danger without fear - courage confronts danger despite the fear.
There's a final thought for you before I end - take heart, stay hopeful and act with compassion. There's much difficulty and danger to be confronted in the world but there is also much goodness and generosity. We've seen it in the selfless work of medical staff and carers around the world, we've seen it in the support people have given to each other, be that physical support with food or simply a long phone call to listen to their fears. As you confront the challenges, remember to draw strength from that goodness and look boldly towards and beyond the horizon.
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.
There is no more business as usual. Our time periods are now BC-19 (Before Covid-19) and AC-19 (After Covid-19). Our world will slot into those periods as it continues to change at pace and there's a very long way to go before we arrive in AC-19. Saving lives is the right priority and, for those who have one, that means staying home. But while we’re at home, we have a responsibility to think — and think hard about what's next.
The economic and social consequences of the pandemic are far reaching and will be long lasting. We are all finding ways to help our organisations and communities deal with the immediate situation and work out what will constitute the new normal. What will your business, organisation, government — and country — look like in the next three to five years?
It certainly won't operate in the same way organisations have operated for the last 100 years. Where sector capacity has been reduced, for example air travel, it will take time to reinstate that capacity when confidence returns and demand grows — or it may be that both appetite and trust for large volume global travel is reduced so the industry must completely reinvent itself or disappear, a relic of a former age. So too with your own business or activity. None of us are immune. What is it you do now that could be done differently? If you mark today as the first day of the new normal what must you do? What has to be different? What creative approaches do you need to take in order to meet changing demands and needs? What is our new normal going to look like? And in getting there, how will we navigate the change and stay off the rocks?
Our evolution depends on two central relationship elements - trust and confidence. Societal trust and confidence is already shaken and, as we attempt to 'flatten the curve' of transmission, what are we doing to smooth the 'curve of confidence' (illustrated above) so, when people recover and start to gather again, they trust in the society and institutions that emerge from this unprecedented event? As COVID-19 progresses and the case curve flattens, another downward curve occurs as people lose confidence and trust in society, its institutions and organisations. Smoothing the curve upwards will be a work in progress that must continue long after the pandemic has moved through its stages and diminished. The world that emerges will not be the same world that was operating on December 31 2019 or even the world that began when the pandemic was announced. It will be a new world, with a new normal, operating in new and uncertain times. Collectively we will need to reimagine and create that normality for the benefit of all.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a redefining moment for the world. Spread of the disease has been fast and furious and given the rapidity of transmission in the three months since it emerged, we now face lengthy disruptions, with societal, economic and political consequences lasting much longer. Advice from WHO on March 7 2020 in the 'Critical preparedness, readiness and response actions for COVID-19 interim guidance' was as follows:
"Several countries have demonstrated that COVID-19 transmission from one person to another can be slowed or stopped. These actions have saved lives and have provided the rest of the world with more time to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19: to ready emergency response systems; to increase capacity to detect and care for patients; to ensure hospitals have the space, supplies and necessary personnel; and to develop life-saving medical interventions. Every country should urgently take all necessary measures to slow further spread and to avoid that their health systems become overwhelmed due to seriously ill patients with COVID-19. All countries should increase their level of preparedness,alert and response to identify, manage and care for new cases of COVID-19. Countries should prepare to respond to different public health scenarios, recognizing that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to managing cases and outbreaks of COVID-19. Each country should assess its risk and rapidly implement the necessary measures at the appropriate scale to reduce both COVID-19 transmission and economic, public and social impacts.”
That was the beginning of March and here we are at the end with some countries failing spectacularly to take the necessary actions to reduce transmission and save lives even though it was in their power to do so. In many places, there has been a failure to recognise risk, acknowledge the problem and act, in others a desperate attempt to cling to old systems that just won't work anymore.
As a trusted public relations and communications advisor to your organisation, you must deal not only with the immediate circumstances but with what's ahead, helping others acknowledge how different life will be. You need to consider the scenarios likely to result from the pandemic and advise on preparedness and potential effects. Never before have borders been closed so promptly, trade and commerce interrupted, countries shut down, freedom of movement restricted or curtailed, citizens surveilled, recorded and monitored. Trillions will be spent helping people to weather the crisis but the reality is that many of the systems we have become accustomed to will disappear and new societal norms will emerge. There will be a process of grief and loss for individuals and their communities.
Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies programme, was recently quoted as saying: “Some countries have not been communicating well with their populations and creating some confusions in the minds of the populations and risk communication,” adding that “trust between governments and their citizens really does need to come to the centre.”
As public relations and communication professionals, trust is our business, a central factor of the relationships we build. This is our concern and our occupation. How we rebuild societal trust after the first wave of the disease has passed will be a central issue not just for governments but for all types of organisations. Faith in established systems will need to be restored if indeed those systems remain standing. Equally telling will be the speed of reinstatement of freedoms withdrawn as part of preventative measures.
Capacity will have to be rebuilt and demand stimulated in a time of economic instability, financial and emotional hardship along with distrust. We must start planning for the consequences while simultaneously dealing with the outbreak. Bringing contextual intelligence to your organisation is absolutely part of the public relations and communications function and, by addressing and preparing for probable scenarios, restoring stability and encouraging progress will be easier to manage.
Organisations, big and small, private and public sector are rightly concerned about the current situation. For many businesses, the simple question of 'will we make it through' is foremost in their minds as they see doors close for lockdowns, customers vanish, staff made redundant or having to stay at home. Small businesses are particularly at risk and the struggle to stay afloat will be too much for some. For millions of people, work has stopped, businesses have closed and life as they knew it is frozen. For public sector organisations, staffing and continued delivery of service is the challenge with healthcare and essential services being stretched to the limit.
Last year - 2019 - the Edelmen Trust Barometer, an annual research project that monitors and reports on levels of trust in society - announced that 'people have shifted their trust to the relationships within their control, most notably their employers. Globally, 75 percent of people trust “my employer” to do what is right, significantly more than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent) and media (47 percent).'
So in this time of need, will that trust in employers be justified? Will employers step up and become the trusted organisation that people are looking for as other societal norms disintegrate? The answer is that some will - and some will not. My hope is that more will step up and act as responsible corporate citizens. Those that do will rely heavily on their social capital, good relationships and effective communication inside and outside their organisation.
Communicating clearly, often and to the right people at the right time will help nudge things forward. George Bernard Shaw's observation that "the single biggest problem with communication is the illusion it has taken place" is worth keeping in mind. It is easy to believe that because you've said something or sent something, everyone knows and understands perfectly. The reality is that even in ‘ordinary’ times people are often in an emotional state, not listening or only half listening, so they misinterpret the information. At present, that state is heightened and layered with many emotions - fear being the most intense. Classic example of this was the commentary on the day the World Health Organisation’s declared a pandemic. Social media posts (many of them) shared the information that 'WHO' had declared a pandemic. Comments were filled with confusion, the most frequent ones proclaiming "I don't know who has declared this - why are you asking me”. The simple abbreviation of the World Health Organisation's name had left people baffled.
I know that, like me, you won’t be surprised by this, yet still, communicators the world over are making assumptions that people know who's who, who's in charge, who's at risk, who to contact or what to do. We must constantly check the information we are sharing can be understood, is relevant, has meaning for our communities and is presented in language they understand. Whatever personal opinions are held, we must make sure that our information is based on available facts rather than opinions, perspectives and personal or political agendas.
Health professionals the world over are working tirelessly to help the sick, develop a vaccine, manage the pandemic and more besides. Others are keeping essential services running, filling the gaps caused by the monumental societal shift that’s occurring right now.
Our challenge — when we are staying at home as we should and not going out — is to work out the ways we will be operating next. What will society look like? How can we make it better? What can we do to contribute? What will our business or organisation do that will be of service to people? Real service, real need - not the fripperies driven by old school newly redundant marketing practices.
Those who have put the relationships critical to their licence to operate at the centre of their activities during BC-19 will be able to smooth the confidence and trust curves faster than most. We will come out of this knowing the things we can (and should) do without as well as a very clear idea as to the organisations and people we want to be with, work with and relate to — because their values are our values. Those who hold profit and power above people will be the dinosaurs of AC-19 as a new, innovative world emerges into air, sea and sky.
The big job in 2021/2 will be to rebuild trust - smooth the confidence curve - so people are willing to begin agin and more into AC19 physically and mentally. It will be a different world and will need human creativity, collaboration and compassion to rebuild.
Let's use this time wisely and figure out how we can make if fair, just and new.
Wherever you are in the world, I wish you well. Stay safe, stay kind, stay informed — and stay home.
Covid-19 is now viral - in every sense of the word. New Zealand announced its first confirmed case today, with officials stressing that it was always a case 'of not if, but when'.
Most country outbreaks are, for the time being at least, as contained as they can be but we all know how easy it is to catch a cold and, as Covid-19 is the same family as the 'common cold' I have no doubt that in the coming weeks we will all be aware of someone with the illness (if not ourselves).
Miscommunication has been rife for weeks now and has resulted in some very nasty racist attacks and displays of xenophobia. Social media is pumped up with rumour and counter-rumour and economic fall-out is beginning to occur.
So what role for practitioners in all of this? Quite a significant one of course but perhaps one of the most valuable and potentially overlooked roles in this type of situation is that of the internal communication professional.
Organisations of all types will face many challenges in the coming weeks and months. Inevitably supply chains will be disrupted and customers numbers will diminish but the greatest challenge will be staying in business or continuing to provide service as staff either fall ill, self-isolate or have to remain home as carers. Internal communicators should have already prepared their crisis plan in conjunction with their HR and leadership teams and have a programme underway - if not, now is the hour.
Clear, factual and consistent communication will help organisations maintain some form of business continuity. Internal communications professionals need to help their colleagues understand how everyone will work together to manage staff shortages, remote working, public-facing service delivery, wellness and hygiene as well as situation updates as case numbers rise and more people become unwell.
However, where the real value will be evident is in those workplaces where internal communicators have been active already, successfully building strong internal relationships in workplaces that give priority to the employee experience. In those instances, the crisis communication plan will be particularly effective because the fundamentals of trust, commitment and loyalty between the organisation and its employees will already be in place.
Hopefully, the organisations out there who prioritise and value their employee relationships outnumber those that don't - and those are the workplaces and organisations where the value of internal communications will be visible to all.
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.
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
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.
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.