Why public relations must wake up to wearables
Things ain’t what they used to be; the end of the beginning around wearable technologies and the device jumps PR practitioners are about to encounter
Op-Ed by Catherine Arrow
I toyed with “61 ways to know if you’re ready for wearables,” tip-toed around “True Life: Why PR was disconnected from the Internet of Everything” and dallied with “Must watch: 17 corporate data disasters that killed the companies,” as my post title.
In the end, I found myself dabbling with hindsight, thinking ahead to a few years from now, when the great and good will gather for the annual International History of Public Relations Conference and expound their views on how our profession dealt with one of its greatest challenges: The Internet of Everything and wearable technology.
As those future conference attendees reflect on our current era, I think their observations will be mixed with disbelief as they discover how slowly we, as a profession, embraced and planned for the seismic social shift that faces us today.
The end of the beginning
As I sit here, at the end of the beginning, I wonder what future colleagues will make of the collective inaction around wearable technologies and the device jumps we are about to encounter.
This year—partly thanks to the refrigerators that sent out their own spam emails, television sets sending unauthorised data into the cloud and smart LED bulbs leaking passwords as well as light—the conversation around wearable and connected devices has gained some traction. This has slightly diminished the frustrations of myself and others, who have been all but begging practitioners to wake up and deal with the challenges presented by this new phase of technological developments.
We are not just talking about a few people sporting Google Glasses, or measuring their heartbeats via the latest wristband or smart watch. We are talking about organisations truly adopting total transparency as their interactions are life-logged, transmitted and shared by stakeholders, users or consumers—in the spirit of Toni Muzi Falconi and Helen Slater’s post, call us what you will.
Future individuals will offer a unique point of view that removes any hint of obfuscation, moving the world from our current relationship economy to one based entirely on shared, augmented or altered perceptions.
Organisations, governments and commercial enterprises may seek to legislate against such transparency, but when I am legally allowed to wear transmitting contact lenses or surface-to-skin chip how will these same bodies regulate my outputs?
Today’s mobile world already allows me to present such points of view, but any life-logging, transmitting or visual capture I undertake can be challenged and stopped, for example during screening at airport security.
If, on the other hand, my dress, smart jacket or t-shirt is monitoring, measuring and capturing data…what then? Strip search will take on a new and vastly more public dimension.
And what is to be done with the information being captured? How are organisations going to use it all? Will the insurance companies sponsor my wearable t-shirt in exchange for details of my daily vitals—and, if the data reveals I’m not up to scratch for my age and stage, will they then refuse me coverage? Will I be penalised for forgetting to do my four-minute workout?
How about a day at the park with the kids, recording them feeding the ducks but inadvertently picking up a conversation between two people sitting on a nearby bench that is either critical or disrespectful of their employer, government, colleague or friend? Will that conversation be acted on in the same way as the Tom Cruise hit squads dealt with the thoughts of those in the film Minority Report. Will we become a global squad of thought police?
The wake up call
My question is this: What are public relations and communication management professionals doing to educate their organisations (and/or governments and leaders) as to the ethical and moral implications of the social shifts ahead?
I talk to people every day about professional development, skills, competencies and behaviours in our profession and so far, only a tiny few have given any thought or taken any action over ways in which we can equip our colleagues to deal with the altered PR practice road ahead.
The years from 1999 to today have, effectively, been the very beginning of social and communicative change. From the birth of blogs to the advent of social networks, all that has emerged so far is just the start. Now, at the end of the beginning, we face greater challenges thanks to technological advances that will both empower us and, to a certain extent, limit us.
In many parts of the world (I’m not going to get started on digital divides here) the Internet of Everything will see us connected to everything. The “things” themselves will carry on communicating without us, creating a transparency of action we have never before experienced at scale. My things will watch your things and tell me what you do and how you do it. Organisations—particularly governments—will find it very hard to peel back long years of secrecy and prepare themselves to be “always on.”
As for the rapidly increasing number of organisations that currently mine and use data for profit, these companies will have to rethink their models and establish how they can use that data for service and social good, rather than to exploit or penalise others by refusing business or hiking prices.
Starting some real conversations
In early July 2014, CIPR held a public debate around wearable technologies. This conversation has been too slow in coming for our profession as the mainstream adoption of wearable technologies should have been front and centre of our planning for some time.
For many years, the UK’s David Phillips has talked about the implications of the Internet of Everything for public relations. I, too, have banged on about the subject for longer than I care to remember and it saddens me that there has been little sense of immediacy from others.
My concern is that we are now at a point where our profession is over-eager and under-prepared for what is in store for individuals and organisations, which means those earlier alluded-to corporate disasters are probably in the offing.
During the CIPR debate, its current president, Stephen Waddington, rightly said that in dealing with wearable and connected technologies the “only way is ethics,” a sentiment with which I wholeheartedly agree. Yet I wonder how well equipped practitioners are when it comes to deal with the ethical dimensions we will find ourselves exploring?
In June of this year, the Global Alliance held a summit to discuss professional credentials. It has recently begun mapping the global credentials framework, examining our professional body of knowledge, behaviours, skills and attributes. My personal concern is that as we gather information from around the world, we will be mapping knowledge, skills, behaviours and attributes that were relevant in the past but face redundancy in the future.
Alongside the mapping of what we know, we need to look carefully at what we don’t know. What will we need to tackle in the next wave of social and technological change, how must we expand our knowledge and what skills do we need to develop?
As practitioners we will have to help our organisations navigate a world driven by communication and, by necessity, underpinned by trust. If we don’t equip ourselves to do this now, then quite simply, we will be as redundant as our skills of old.
Less than 10 years ago, I recall talking to a roomful of public relations professionals about how technology was going to change the way we—and society—communicated. They hadn’t heard of YouTube, still had to use a dial-up connection to get their emails and thought the idea of a smartphone both improbable and laughable. “Who would want to do that?” was the consensus when we discussed posting comments and updates on blogs.
Yet here we are.
What seemed improbable then is now an accepted and integral part of our daily lives. There are seismic social, economic and political shifts ahead; ones that will make the changes of the last few years seem incidental.
As a PR profession, we must understand the implications of this shift and be ready to help navigate the next ocean of change.
* * *
Catherine Arrow is a public relations consultant, educator and writer. Current secretary of the Global Alliance, Catherine is a PRINZ Fellow, CIPR Fellow and Chartered Public Relations Practitioner. She is deeply involved in professional development design and provision and, alongside her consultancy work at Unlocked PR, she lectures, speaks and writes about public relations, particularly digital relationships.
In 2012, she was presented with the PRINZ President’s Award for her contribution to the public relations profession.
Besides taking the PRoust Questionnaire and being a frequent guest in the comments section, Catherine’s last direct involvement with PR Conversations was the interview she conducted with Daniel Tisch and Jean Valin, Refreshing the PR advocacy platform through the Melbourne Mandate 2012.