Up Periscope or Down Meerkat - will public relations dare to win?
Tough new reality for PR professionals - virtual communication

Five awkward questions about the future of PR

CyberhandshakeLast year I gave a webinar for PRIA, the Public Relations Institute of Australia covering five awkward questions for the profession. As my blog languished during 2015, I thought I might pose some of the questions here via my edited notes for the session. To listen to the webinar  you'll have to head over to the PRIA site, but in the meantime, here's a long read covering a few of the issues I believe our profession must tackle in 2016.

Five awkward questions about the future of PR

As well as asking some sticky questions today, we’ll be talking more about the incremental changes over the last couple of years - in artificial intelligence, robotics, biological enhancement - and the implications those changes have for us as a profession as well as for our organisations.

I’m kicking off with the fantastic picture of Pluto shared by NASA as an exclusive through instagram as it serves as a reminder that we need to explore - and to learn something new every day. Perhaps my greatest worry for our profession is that it is in danger of being left behind which is why I have these questions on my mind - and I very much look forward to hearing your opinions of the questions and any possible answers you might have that will strengthen the future for us all.

This week, as you know, Google reorganised itself into a new company called Alphabet - dub dub dub abc dot x y z.   In the official blog post that announced the changes, CEO Larry Page said : “We’ve long believed that over time companies tend to get comfortable doing the same thing, just making incremental changes. But in the technology industry, where revolutionary ideas drive the next big growth areas, you need to be a bit uncomfortable to stay relevant.”

I’d like to suggest that it isn’t just the technology industry that needs to be uncomfortable - it’s high time that public relations got really uncomfortable about what it does and how it does things in order to progress.

So what about these five awkward questions then? And why do they need to be awkward questions? Simply because the right questions can act as a catalyst for such discomfort and, in the long term, change for the better.

What we are going to talk about today is the role of public relations in a society that is undergoing seismic shifts across all spectrums - political, social, economic and technological - with the emphasis on technology, simply because technology is driving the changes across all aspects of the way we live, work and play.

During PRIA’s last webinar on ethics, Johanna Fawkes talked about PR having a mid-life crisis. She suggested that we have arrived at a point at which a re-evaluation of our direction is necessary. And I couldn’t agree with her more. My only re-adjustment to her observation would be that rather than a midlife crisis we are more like a recent graduate looking to determine options for our career path and not quite sure of the road ahead.

Historically, there is no getting away from the fact that most descriptions of western public relations are centred on publicity - be that media relations, marketing communications, event management - even political communications tipped with the taint of ‘spin’. After a number of decades in this profession, I’d like to start the questions with a very different premise because for me, and many others besides, public relations is not about these things. In fact, they form a very small part of what we do. 

The reality of public relations practice for me is simple - what we do is build and sustain the relationships we need in order to maintain our licence to operate. The three pillars that support this activity are understanding, communication and action - put simply, listen, speak and do.

Thanks to a lack of understanding about our role itself, practitioners often get stuck in a tactical role - as Professor Anne Gregory, immediate past chair of Global Alliance puts it we end up simply ‘sending out stuff’ in various forms and at various times instead of working on the things that matter. Often this SOS means being head down, knocking out material and approaching the communications element of what we do in ways that long ago have been outstripped by progress.

So my first question is this: Do we really know what’s going on? Even when it boils down to the simplest elements of ‘sending out stuff’ are we collectively sufficiently informed to develop the PR profession of the future?

Earlier this year, two apps, Meerkat and Periscope stormed into view. Personally I was as pleased and excited to see them as I was with Twitter when that first launched as both apps provide an enormous opportunity for transparent and two-way engagement with stakeholders, communities - the people that we build the relationships with. Call them what you will. Even accounting for the the dodgy and often misogynistic commenters that crop up inside the apps - particularly Periscope - the opportunity for transparent engagement is enormous.  Over in Spain, in a town called Jun which runs itself using Twitter, they embraced the apps as a means to live stream their deliberations and debates.  The Mayor, José Antonio Rodríguez Salas, is quoted as saying: “Twitter has created the society of the minute – very quick questions and very quick answers. We now do our paperwork on Twitter,” he says. “But this is an important point, because who values the work of the people at city hall? The street sweeper? The cleaner? We decided that everyone would have a Twitter account so that they could see that people value their work.”

The town is encouraging all 3,500 residents to join Twitter. Nearly 1000 have had their accounts registered at the town hall so far, and use it to book rooms, make doctor’s appointments, report crimes or things that need fixing around the town. Street sweeper @barredorajun has become something of a local - and international - weblebrity and to date things seem to be going well.

The use of these ‘business as usual’ channels in Jun means that communication is direct, speedy and effective but, more importantly, governance, accountability, service, sense of place and behaviours have all changed. Those in governance are openly and continually engaged with those who provide their licence to operate.

So, you are the public relations or communications representative for your organisation. Are you going to write something about something that happened in the past - or are you going to live stream to me via your phone so that I can see what’s going on for myself in real time?  Or are you busying yourself preparing to send out stuff that is going through some tortuous approvals process as organisational hierarchy seeks to cling desperately to ‘command and control’ models of communication? Are you going to leave your desk and involve yourself with the real time communication that’s going on in your reception area as I live stream my encounter with your team member, your operations, your products or your services?  

This example, of two live streaming apps, is, to be honest, a little old hat but, if your focus is still firmly on mainstream media (despite its diminishing influence, reach and engagement) lets take a look at the news automation revolution and its role in information delivery.  

One such company, Automated Insights, has been writing articles for the Associated Press for some time now.  In their own words, this is what their platform does:

Automated Insights’ patented Wordsmith platform transforms Big Data into narrative reports by spotting patterns, correlations and key insights in the data and then describing them in plain English, just like a human would. Using the Wordsmith natural language generation engine, companies can personalize content in real-time, via any screen. Wordsmith lets you write individual stories for each user among millions

Every quarter, public companies in the US release corporate earnings. and after each release Associated Press reporters extract relevant financial numbers to compose stories based on those numbers.

This traditional approach meant that AP could only produce 300 such stories per quarter leaving thousands of potential stories unwritten.

The release stories took up reporters’ time and were looked on with dread by those having to churn them out - for example, on Techcrunch

Alex Wilhelm notes that “[e]arnings season makes most reporters want to poke their eyes out with sharp objects.”

AP found answers in automation using the Wordsmith platform from Automated Insights. Wordsmith uses natural language generation to turn data into a written, plain-language narrative. In this case, Wordsmith transforms raw earnings data from Zacks Investment Research into a publishable AP story in a fraction of a second. In fact, the Wordsmith team specifically configured the natural language generation engine to write in AP style - which many of you will know is the standard style for thousands of journalists and publications.

Using Wordsmith,  AP now produces nearly 4,300 quarterly earnings stories. The stories retain the same quality and accuracy that readers expect from any of AP’s human-written articles and apart from an explanatory note at the bottom of the story, there is no evidence they were written by an algorithm.

In the last year, Automated Insights has written more than one billion - yes one billion - articles for some of the biggest companies in the world. On sport, on futures, on finance - even fantasy football. And while they may be ahead in scale, they are certainly not alone.

So while communicators may still be toiling away somewhere, carefully preparing a couple of hundred words on a company perspective, out there is an algorithm doing it better, faster and more prolifically with the only indicator that it is lacking the human touch being a small line at the bottom indicating that this story has been written by an algorithm.

There are two types of artificial intelligence - one interacts with the world around us and we would recognise that as a robot and the other is disembodied - the kind of cognitive system emerging in IBM’s Watson. 

You may remember that some years ago Watson won the US game show Jeopardy. Well things have moved on since then and Watson has been particularly busy improving his cognitive abilities. So much so that he is currently being used in medicine to predict and diagnose illnesses, by students in Canada who are applying Watson to legal research - and there are 4000 companies lined up to use the system elements of cognitive prediction and analysis to boost their business. Actually, it would be more accurate to say that they’ll be using it to build an entirely new type of business based on data, intelligence and insights. Ah yes - intelligence and insights, one of the things that we’ve been involved with for a very, very long time. Identifying trends and issues so that we can preempt crisis, deal with emerging problems and recommend behavioural changes and solutions to our organisations. Anyone spotted the potential for redundancy now Watson - and other developing systems - are around?

All of this is the tip of the tip of the iceberg and really only deals with the old-school models of PR concerned primarily with publicity. That said, aggregated automated algorithms gathering data from across the web and elsewhere (your own sites included) then producing a ‘narrative’ about your organisation is likely to have a significant affect on reputations of all kinds.

My personal view is that, as a collective, we are not sufficiently aware of what is going on and how that affects our profession in terms of both threats and opportunities. Equally, as artificial intelligence - physical or disembodied - becomes increasingly commonplace, how are we, as navigators through this for our organisations, going to help deal with the societal shifts ahead - which brings me to question two.

Are we capable, as a profession, of sorting out the complexities of future relationships? Not just the human relationships but the humanoid ones, and those involving the relationships between people and data?

Just to set the scene, I’d like to introduce you to Hotel Henn Na in Japan. It opened in July and is staffed entirely by robots. There’s a video link at the end you might want to watch later and the dinosaur receptionist is certainly worth a look. It’s the first hotel of its kind - but probably won’t be the last - and while we might balk at services run entirely by robots we are certainly seeing them drift into our daily lives. Think healthcare for example. Robots have been gradually introduced as companion robots, nurses, and surgeons - but what about nanobots for detecting cancer and heart attacks? Which brings us back to Google of course. Google has been working on robots and artificial intelligence for some years now - they bought a whole raft of companies back in 2014, including the famous Boston Dynamics, developer of Atlas, a humanoid robot designed to deal with rough terrain, and is probably the nearest nudge to Skynet’s fictional robots which will be familiar to fans of the Terminator series. 

But robots go wrong - as we saw earlier in July when a 22-year-old worker at a Volkswagen plant was grabbed and crushed to death by a robot while it was being installed. And, when robots go ‘right’ - working diligently at their set tasks but equipped with an artificial intelligence that nudges the line between algorithm and consciousness, how will we deal with robot rights? How are organisations going to manage the relationships between robot workers and human workers? How will they communicate the inevitable lay-offs and changes in business practices?

Internal communication inside organisations can be challenging at the best of times and while today there is much talk of engagement, empowerment and employee advocacy what credibility will there be in robotic advocacy? What understanding will need to be developed and what role will we play - or indeed, what role are we prepared to play in all this?

Take too the relationship between data, an organisation and its stakeholders. Again, thinking about healthcare - how many of you I wonder are wearing a monitoring device that cheerily tells you how well your running programme is going, how efficiently your heart is pounding and how much lung capacity you have. Now imagine I am an insurance company. At the moment I might reward you for taking your daily run or walking your 10000 steps.  This could come in the form of a cheerily written push notification to your device (written by algorithm of course) or, if feeling generous, it could be a discount on your premium. But what happens in the future, when your data tells me that not only have you not been running, you’ve had a few glasses of wine, large helpings of chocolate and refused to eat your veggies?  Will I increase your premium? Or, if you become ill, will I refuse to insure you at all? How will organisational behaviour be determined by the abundance of data and how, ethically, will they make sense of it? And what help will we give? Johanna Fawkes also spoke about the trend towards the public relations practitioner being the ethical conscience of the organisation. I have to say that I think we definitely have a role to play here as we see both the inside and the outside of the organisations we work for. In listening, understanding and communicating we are aware (if we are doing it properly) of those areas where behavioural and cultural change is necessary for an organisation to maintain its licence to operate.  After all, any organisation will (and is) able to represent itself and its point of view to the world at large thanks to its own data-gathering algorithm so for those in the profession who take the stance that their job is purely putting forward the company’s viewpoint you may find yourself standing in the road transfixed possum like by the headlights - or headlines - of automation.

Right, onto awkward question three and it is a simple one.  Why are we not learning more about the changes in communication methods? 

I’m learning a second language at the moment - in fact, I’ve been struggling with it for some time but I’m getting there. It’s not French or Italian - although I’m having a go at those too. The one I am concentrating on most is coding - because as someone involved in communication it is a must-have, not a ‘nice to have’.  Equally, I am trying to improve my data sourcing and analysis skills - I’ll never be Watson but I’m hoping that in the years ahead when I retire and get my care robot assigned to me we will at least be able to have a healthy debate over the number crunching being done around my existence.

Over the last few years I’ve worked to improve my video skills - both writing, performing, production and editing - because video content in the mobile environment is more powerful, direct and sharable than other forms of content.  Those are just a couple of examples of basic steps that, as a professional practitioner I am taking to improve my levels of competency in a rapidly changing environment. And yet look around the world at university courses in public relations and communication management and you see the same old ‘learnings’ trotted out - press releases, copy writing, event management - some even have an element of online learning. Few reach into the future practice - and many still have public relations as an adjunct to journalism papers. I do wonder when the penny will drop that public relations and journalism are completely, totally different jobs (although without a knowledge of data and statistics, practitioners are not going to be able to develop good media relations with the new breed of data journalists currently emerging - but that’s another, albeit related discussion).

The Global Alliance for Public Relations and communication management the global body for the profession has been undertaking a review of professional credentials around the world and the ‘body of knowledge’ that goes with them. This work is ongoing and results will be in when the consultation with PR professional associations has taken place. But in terms of the future practitioner, in 2012 Global Alliance held the World Public Relations Forum in Melbourne and from that, the Melbourne Mandate was born. This looked at the communicative organisation and what it needed to do to build critical relationships, organisational character and culture.  After Melbourne, organisations adopting the Mandate asked what people needed to be able to do in order to make the aspirations a reality so we developed a toolkit to help. My part in this was researching and putting together a professional development framework - up here now - and you’ll see there’s a lot more to it than simply being a good writer. Communication skills for now - and in the future need to encompass oral, visual, experiential as well as the written word. Because times have changed. Interestingly though providing training and development in these areas doesn’t mean people come. Is that - and this is a sub question - because they are too comfortable with what they do now and don't see the relevance? Or is it because they have a different view of our role?

Which brings us to question four - what is the future looking like for the public relations profession?

I think this is a particularly interesting one given that so many conversations on networks like Linkedin, Google + and others still bang the same tactical, ‘sending out stuff’ drum.  The profession has failed spectacularly to get to grips with the basics of measurement and evaluation - which is not hard, is easily done and I have no idea why it isn’t a mandatory requirement - yet this simple step alone adds relevance and purpose to the work we do as we can demonstrate to the organisations we work for how the relationship has improved as a result of what we have done in societal, economic and repetitional dimensions.

Are we likely to fragment into a flurry of tactical disciplines - social media manager, community manager, videographer - implementing push communications that are truly irrelevant or will we go another route, that of the trusted, qualified professional advisor working in the interests of both organisation and communities in equal measure? Do we need our own ‘licence to operate’ in the form of a globally or nationally recognised credential, without which we cannot legally undertake the practice of public relations?

I think the opportunity exists - and we are on the cusp of change here - to become the latter rather than the former if, collectively, we work to build understanding of the profession, update educational frameworks and really work to develop trust and confidence.

The biggest challenge is failure to recognise what is in front of us. The societal shift we are part of at the moment is significant. As we move from the mechanical age into the digital age the pace of change is only going to increase. Merging and emerging technologies that mix biology, artificial intelligence, nano-techology, chemistry and physics are reshaping our world, our bodies - and our minds.

In the Alphabet soup of technology companies that now includes Google is one Google bought earlier for around $242m called Deep Mind, which brings together computer and neuro scientists to achieve their mission of ‘solving intelligence’. Others - including Nest, the home automation company, a snip at around $3.2bn - give some clues as to the shape of digital and robotic interaction to come as well as the enormous power the tech companies will have. If you need some convincing, just browse the mergers and acquisitions list of Google, Apple, Facebook, Twitter Microsoft and Yahoo - they make informative and edifying reading.

Reading that prompts my last question - will we undertake public relations and cyber relations?  Might our future role be more connected with representing the human population to the cyber-corporations? Arguing for greater equality in digital provision - after all, those who cannot afford to be online or who opt out of the system face a dystopian future of exclusion. And what will we do with our time? As and when jobs are automated - yes even the legal and accounting professions are in there too - how will your day look? Will you be earning enough to put a bitcoin in the bank so you can pay to open your front door via your implanted or wearable device?

Recently, Stephen Hawkins in an interview with the BBC warned that AI was a very real threat to human kind as did Tesla and Space X CEO Elon Musk who called it the greatest existential threat to humanity.  At the start of August he muted his tone a little during a panel on super intelligene at Google’s headquarters campus saying it is definitely going to happen and, if it is going to happen, what’s the best way for it to do so?  Both men joined forces with leading scientists and researchers from around the world to sign a letter of protest concerning AI and weapons development sent to the International Joint Conferences on Artificial Intelligence in Buenos Aires. .[3]

Technological singularity is a hypothetical advent of general artificial intelligence, conceptualised in 1958  by the Hungarian born mathematician and physicist John von Neumann described  as the "ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue”.

The term was popularized by mathematician, computer scientist and science fiction author  Vernor Vinge who argues that artificial intelligence, human biological enhancement or brain-computer interfaces could be possible causes of the singularity.

The theory goes that at the point of singularity, a computer, computer network, or robot would theoretically be capable of redesigning itself and/or designing and building computers or robots better than itself. 

Repetitions of this cycle could result an intelligence explosion where smart machines design successive generations of increasingly powerful machines, creating intelligence far exceeding human intellectual capacity and control. Because the capabilities of such a super intelligence may be impossible for a human to comprehend, the technological singularity is an occurrence beyond which events may become unpredictable, unfavorable, or even unfathomable - which is why I think Stephen Hawkins and friends are as worried as they seem to be. It is tempting to say Skynet is with us (it probably is already somewhere) but one thing is certain, we cannot ignore the developments that are happening so fast. We need to figure it out and help others to do the same. At a very simplistic level its a bit like buying a piece of Ikea furniture.  You have the object, you know it will be useful in time but you just can’t figure out how it is all going to piece together - if you get lucky at the end of the process you’ll have something you can use, a couple of odd screws and an allen key but if it goes the other way the whole thing becomes a monstrosity that you have to live with for some time.

I wonder if we need to look for - or indeed are approaching - a point of professional singularity. A point in time when our profession emerges into a new form, more credible, trustworthy and a real force for societal good - or perhaps we will reach a point beyond which we will not continue.

What do you think?