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

In kicking off this post, I was sorely tempted to indulge in a Buzzfeed-style headline, complete with obligatory quirky picture—probably JIBO, the world’s first family robot.

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.

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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.

You can find her on Twitter, on her thinking-aloud space, PR from the BeachGoogle+ or here in the archives (as Catherine is PRC alumna)!

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About the image: This Creative Commons photo by Ted Eytain (tedeytan) was discovered in the inStash article: 10 Wearable Tech Gadgets That’ll Change Your LifeAttribution

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31 Responses to “Why public relations must wake up to wearables”
  1. Helen Slater says:

    Catherine, this is a timely post, to say the least. You’re right, this is an issue that needs to be tackled. We’ve seen discussion and debate here in NZ, around the GCSB’s right to monitor private individuals’ communication within NZ. How do we deal with this type of thing outside the government realm, where there are no constraints. What you raise is, I think, about the transparency and ethical behaviour that exists, or doesn’t, in our lives already. Our societies generally take for granted that politicians can’t be believed (and are proven so often to be so), that big business is about profit above people, that people are to serve the economy, rather than the other way around, where those who trust are viewed as naive. This environment provides us with an incredibly shaky foundation on which to base the ethics of the use of technology, wearable or not. It is disturbing and our profession does need to lead the discussion around this – a wide, inclusive discussion that sets direction for spelling out what the consequences of the technological changes are likely to be and how we should deal with those consequences.

    However, I do believe (I might be pessimistic, but I think realistic is more accurate), that no matter what we as PR professionals might advocate, the information that is netted by individuals and organisations, whether government or private, is already harvested and used in ways none of us would consider as ethical. It is an impossible task to backtrack and set standards that realistically don’t suit governments or companies driven by polls and profits.

    We can try to at least fight a rearguard action and as a profession lead the exploration of this issue and set ground-rules for ourselves (although our various ethical codes should set the parameters of good practice anyway). And yes, I wholeheartedly agree, we have to understand and expand our knowledge not just of today’s technology, but understand the trends that are paving the way to future developments so that we are prepared for them and have the skills to deal with them.

    That will take our industry making fundamental changes so that we are working much more closely with those doing the development and ensuring we are constantly educating ourselves about technology present and future, not just in usage, but more importantly about what the changes mean for how we carry out PR and how we advise and counsel our clients and employers about how they do business and secure their reputations.

    • Helen – thank you for your thoughts on this. I am glad you agree that we have to expand our knowledge and look beyond the ‘now’. If this isn’t done, then we can’t possibly advise others and, right now, I haven’t seen anyone else put their hands up for this particular task. As practitioners we have always spanned the boundary between the organisation and its community. I think that as the device jumps occur – preferably before they occur – we raise the issues inside and outside our organisations so that everyone can safely navigate the considerable changes ahead.

  2. David Phillips says:

    Catherine, you are too kind and complimentary and oh, so right.

    The implications of 5G for Public Relations makes the last 15 years look like conversion from bronze to iron between 1206 and 1150 BC. A lot of what will happen with 5G is already becoming evident.

    Of course, I am sure that all the people with an interest in Public Relations are delighted that we now have the capability to list in order the most appreciated skills of the vast majority of members. Indeed, we can now track day by day the changing levels of skill so kindly provided by the membership to us all. All we had to do is to mine LinkedIn which is where CIPR members reveal all.

    This is the evolution of the 1999 theory put forward by the UK PR industry Internet Commission of ‘Internet Porosity’ in its new ‘radical’ form.

    It is the beginning of an era of transparency and porosity that will expose the barest of corporate bones. We had better be prepared. More significantly, the practitioner needs to be able to inform, educate and guide the board and governors of our clients and employers.

    If exposure were not enough, the nature of Internet Agency, the ability of people and technologies to change the nature of content as it passes through the digital cloud is also morphing into a radical state. Sentient capability to morph the practitioners’ crafted message is becoming a reality. Already the intelligent application of Semantic analysis is used by us when we ask Google for answers.

    It is the beginning, not the end. Serious practice, knowledge and ethical issues at every step.

    • Couldn’t agree more David. We are the ‘end of the beginning’ and far from the end itself. Sentient capability and semantic analysis are with us now, but largely ignored by practitioners. And without doubt, many corporate bones will be laid bare as unforeseen algorithms rattle the life back into the reputational skeletons that have, for many years, been lurking undisturbed and unseen in various organisational cupboards.

  3. Toni muzi falconi says:

    My good friend Vincenzo Russi, an Italian version of David Phillips, focused on publishing rather than PR spoke to me about the Internet of Everything and its presumable consequences in 2010, and as I learned he would in a few months be visiting New York I invited him to lecture to my global relations and intercultural communication students. This he did and raised much incredulity and little passion.

    More recently I had the privilege of a long bus ride from Ljubiana to Bled with David and was fully vaccinated for a tranquil read of this post.

    Catherine is one of my favourite friends and colleagues and I particularly love the way she writes.

    The post, in my view, opens a discussion.

    I also had Catherine via Skype with my students a few months ago and she confirmed to me what I had imagined: the underground groups of resistance to ‘always on’ as well as the ’slow communication’ movement are not Luddites but proactive political militants terrified that the term transparency, despite its more common meanings, has now returned to be used as in archaic computer language; that ethics and moral, as applied to the PR profession now focus more on the consequences of what things do between themselves than what individual professionals do to or with their human publics; that when we say that ‘message control’ as a professional paradigm of PR has been shattered (and this is one of their positive consequences) by social media, but that the same formulation of a message can be the work of ‘things’ …..

    Are ‘things’ leading us or vice versa?

    We have always complained that the profession is behind and its development is determined and led by others (from C-suites, to marketers, to scholars…..) and this was the whole reason for the call to action from the Stockholm Accords to the Melbourne Mandate (help us shape our own future…).

    Being led by things that most of us don’t even know how they think, what they know and where they want to go is..what one of my boyhood heroes Henry Miller would have called an air-conditioned nightmare.

    Is my approach Luddist? Catherine, what do you say? You certainly described a situation and its pragmatic remedies… But what do you really think?

    • Toni – I bet that was a great bus ride with David and it would be interesting to hear Vincenzo’s opinion. The big problem that I can see (and I will venture this opinion as you asked what I really thought) is that the Internet of Everything will be used to control behaviour and curtail personal freedom.

      We had a little flash of this here in NZ last month when Swannanoa School in North Canterbury measured up the kiddies for ‘good behaviour silicon wrist bands’ which would track students’ behaviour with a hand-held scanner and feed the data into an online behaviour chart. These are primary school children by the way. The plan, described as ‘a glorified star chart’, was ditched 24 hours after mainstream media coverage and suitably loud parental outcry.

      We have insurance company apps that monitor our driving and ‘reward’ us for driving well – but how long until the reward carrot turns to a big stick? Monitoring, capturing and the seamless, unseen transmission of data, whether from the most fashionable frock or cocktail-coloured contact lenses, will see that data used as a means of control. In the past, organisations have aimed to control what we think through the transmission of messages. The dangerous and scary phase is the control of what we actually do through the collection, interpretation and subsequent repurposing of data.

      I’d like to think that if we are going to be tagged, chipped, bioscanned and measured in order to access essential food, housing, work and services then everyone will experience the same degree of monitoring. However, my inner cynic knows that politicians (and those who run the data scrapers) will not submit to such experiences themselves. They will tell us this is for security reasons but I think ‘bio-freedom’ will be a luxury attained through power, with data the desirable currency.

      Because the Internet of Everything will seamlessly connect everything to everyone, increasingly we will buy into systems, not services. So, for example, the health system will track individuals from the womb onwards. Mothers who dare to have the odd glass of red wine during their pregnancy will be penalised and before birth, baby will have a mark against them. Genetic data gathered will inform those along the life journey as to the viability, capability, behaviour and traits of the little one, with predictive analysis applied to nursery pictures and first stories, informing educational and career routes.

      Freedom of choice will reduce – if my health marker indicates a propensity towards heart problems then the supermarket smart trolley will, as I age, refuse me butter and brie. It will also refuse the shopper that nice bottle of red because their employer has advised there is an important meeting the next day. And, at the weekend, when I leave to join a protest march, my driverless car may well refuse to take me as government triggered road closures have shut down the access grid to limit or eliminate participation.

      Organisations will have to figure out what they can contribute to the system, not what services they provide. That will mean vastly different business models and ways of working, and organisations will have to decide if their part of the system is geared towards societal good or societal control and exploitation.

      In all of this, I take comfort from the fact that, by and large, most people are driven by a desire to do good. The danger is that good people could easily be caught by the ‘boiling frog’ scenario that Tim Marshall refers to when he talks about ethics: the story goes that if you put a frog into boiling water it will hop out immediately and survive. Pop a frog into a pot of water and slowly increase the heat and the frog will not perceive the danger and be slowly cooked to death.

      Here, at the end of the beginning, we’ve been sitting in the pot for a while. Question is, how do we deal with technology – and its creators – turning up the heat? Some will jump the pot (and deliberately opt out) while I fear the majority will boil. Our job, as practitioners, will be to make sure that the whole thing doesn’t turn into a nasty green stew.

  4. toni muzi falconi says:

    Catherine,

    I am grateful that you took the time to articulate your thoughts in such a clear cut and unambiguous response.

    However, the increasingly realistic scenario you describe is valid for every human being, regardless of her/his profession.

    So let me move from Henry Miller’s pre-Second World War air-conditioned nightmare description to the contemporary Emilio Galli Zugaro “Intel inside” analogy, when he describes the role of the PR professional in an organization.

    Tim Marshall’s brilliant “boiling frog” analogy on ethics is also valid, but again, for every individual.

    If we ‘jump the pot’ and opt out as professionals, we are at the very least dis-intermediated.

    If instead we accept to boil we contribute to the “nasty stew”.

    Can you please elaborate on what you might envisage as a “third way” out?

    You say that organizations must decide if their role in the new system, also created by the Internet of Everything, is “geared towards societal good or societal control and exploitation”. (this is Intel-inside thinking).

    To some it might seem bizarre that public relators, globally hyped (and many of our colleagues “boil” with satisfaction for the attention, as it gives them some identity) as working to push the organization towards the exploitation side of the dilemma, should instead advocate and professionally exercise, as you suggest, its societal good side.

    Anne Gregory’s recent editorial for the Global Alliance newsletter as well as most of our work (yours, mine and that of others) has been going for many years in this direction.
    When the two of us co-facilited the group that defined the “responsibility” part of the Melbourne Mandate, the Internet of Everything was probably only on your radar.

    Looking back at that experience, would you just integrate it today with the Internet of Everything as another variable or would you radically change the thought process?

  5. This discussion is jumping ahead of a burning but neglected issue that should frame how we handle this small – as yet hardly manifest – leap in the application of modern technology.

    We need first to confront the problematic ethical problems posed by the near-ubiquitous modern-day obsession with nudging. This is an issue that predates wearable technology by about a decade. To make up for lost time we would do well to define the parameters of, and start sticking up for, moral autonomy; which was once seen as sacrosanct, but is now held in contempt.

    Only then will we PR pros be in a fit state – from a moral perspective – to advise clients about the implications of future technological developments that threaten the public’s moral autonomy. So, yes, “wearable nudge” and other personally-intrusive abuses that silicon and algorithms potentially enable are not to be underestimated.

    The problem, I fear, is that the possibility to use wearable-tech to guide and control the behaviour of the unwashed-masses (people like me) will prove to be a godsend to paternalists.

    Having said all that, I am really looking forward to the introduction on a gigantic life-altering scale of modern wearable tech. Bring it on!

  6. David Phillips says:

    Now we are moving off topic, perhaps we can take a wider look at ethics and social media and some other aspects of the new PR mediated by the Internet of Things.

    Seeing, for example, social media from the constituent’s perspective one finds some pretty dangerous happenings.

    For example in Wired, Mat Honan describes an experiment he did by ‘liking’ everything he say on Facebook. The most worrying aspect of this activity is the impact he had on his followers. They were bombarded with, in effect, his propaganda (and some of it was pretty distasteful).

    Do we, as practitioners, monitor what our constituents see to identify if they too are targets of propaganda? Do we ensure that our ‘marketing’ colleagues are not using such tactics? There are some big ethical issues here too.

    Meanwhile, http://www.brightplanet.com and http://www.torproject.org, two of the Darkweb search engines make password/paywall protected content in the Lightweb visible for all to see – yes, even your academic papers!

    It does not stop there, these search engines shine a bright focused spotlight onto a much bigger internet than most would credit. Internet porosity is now a much bigger issue. Is this sort of search and monitoring ethical?

    Once again, we might also ask the ethical question of our marketing colleagues and web masters. Information is ‘leaking out’ faster than we imagine.

    And so back to wearable technologies.

    By 2020, London will have 5G (http://goo.gl/iBZEUn).

    4G offers download speeds that are roughly equivalent to your superfast broadband (around 30-40Mbps) at home. 5G will go well beyond that http://goo.gl/dPsTBx.

    You will be able to download a film to your Google Contact Lens in less than a second http://goo.gl/gnfWsc.

    Regardless of the technology adopted, it’s thought that there will by multiple smaller antennas employed, allowing signals to be emitted in multiple directions and even bounced off off buildings and solid surfaces. New York University, have come up with the idea of utilising millimeter-wave frequencies. The main advantage of using this frequency range is that it’s scarcely used by other broadcast technologies http://goo.gl/fiPBNd.

    Apple is rumoured to be working with Intelligent Energy, a fuel-cell firm that could enable Apple’s devices to last “days or even weeks,” http://goo.gl/R9BTMz. There are also experiments being run to generate electricity from microwaves. Such technologies remove the need for batteries or other power supply http://goo.gl/t3oz58.

    Not only will it be 20-100 times faster than 4G, it will be a communications technology that can be embedded into almost anything (think light-bulb). It will provide an opportunity for development of a distributed network internet unencumbered by the big ISP’s and not needing batteries or other connections to electrical power.

    The internet will then be able to reach areas and communities that do not have electricity or a reliable electrical resource.

    Embedded and mobile devices. The “Internet of Things” will explode. Such devices are being developed now. Some predictions suggest 50 or more mobile devices per person by 2025 (that is only eleven years away).

    Why should this be relevant to PR?

    If there is traditional media, social media and a new medium called ‘Things’ and we have 50 ‘Thing’ media attached to us one way or another, the evolution will be many times more significant than the 4G mobile phone plus the tablet communications device 40% of the population already carry with them wherever they go.

    Which of your students will resist the ‘love at first sight’ embedded chip which tells them that pheromone count of the the hunk that just walked in the door thinks you are gorgeous? For the proponents of PR as relationship management this chip will be a whole new area of practice and for the PR as a communications discipline will have ever more communications channels/content to worry about.

    So can we imagine such developments in 10-15 years? Did we envisage Twitter and YouTube as part of the PR discipline in 2004 or 1999?

    Perhaps PR needs to begin work on what to do now and not leave it too late.

    I am certain that we should be working on development of University courses with such developments in mind.

  7. Pau Seaman says:

    David, the “future” broadband speeds you mention are relatively slow and hardly novel. In South Korea LTE-Advanced wireless already operates at 300 megabits per second and some claim 450. Indeed, for years South Korea – and Hong Kong, I believe – broadband speeds have on average been 50 times faster than in the US and UK.

    But it has not had great (or arguably any) significance in PR terms that one could isolate as being unique to South Korea. And South Korea was the first to pass 100 per cent broadband penetration some years back. But again it has had no unique significance in terms of PR trends that one could easily identify (tho it has given rise to some interesting business models).

    My point is that we shouldn’t see speed and the techy stuff (including innovative batteries and chips in things) and the penetration levels of broadband as being as relevant to the misuse of IT’s potential as you suggest. I suggest we need to look beyond the techy stuff to get at the really problematic ethical and misuse of stuff and consumer trust issues that concern you. Otherwise we won’t see the woods for the trees.

    • David Phillips says:

      Thank you Paul. I stand corrected. There are some transmission protocols that are very fast indeed.

      I agree that the technology is not the biggest issue but its application is the most important element for practitioners.

      A case in point are the Russian Trolls working as we speak: http://goo.gl/hVVeFK.

      I think that South Korea has seen some interesting developments. Its productivity (except in automotive manufacturing) is pretty bad – even in telecommunications. Indeed, it is common to find evidence of use of mobiles at work depressing productivity (a growing problem in the UK too). Is this the kind of issue PR will have to contend with as the technologies mature? Perhaps we need to do the research.

      Putting Korea aside for a moment, the big PR issue is the extent to which the evolving tech model will affect society because of the consequential changes in radical transparency, online porosity, internet agency, content richness and reach, a 15 year old theoretical construct that has stood the test of time (and I declare my interest). It offers a concept that will give us a perspective on the Internet of Things and much more beside.

      First we need an understanding of the technical possibilities and then we can translate the potential into the PR issues of transparency, porosity, agency etc. The theory is quite capable of offering up the ethical issues. Anne Gregory showed how in a paper in 1999.

      We have the theoretical know-how and just need the determination to do the grounded research.

  8. Paul Seaman says:

    David, when it comes to IT, the internet (including of things) and social media and web 2,0 the problem has been too much focus on PR and play and paternalism not enough on boosting productivity.

    The internet and the mobile revolution have revolved too much around Twitter and facebook, as well as girls, gambling and gaming, which have dominated a disproportionate amount of consumer and business/service provider attention.

    In digital Japan (and I think South Korea too) adult men are increasingly retreating from the adult world into the virtual one complete with a virtual girl friend (they don’t like real ones or marriage or they prefer their virtual relationship to the ones they have at home). Women also are shunning marriage and sex and child-rearing and the burden of sustaining relationships. Others – including women – are immersing themselves in a network of weird cult-like shops and social networks, which have become mass pass times for time-wasting. See “no sex please, we’re japanese” http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b03fh0bg

    Yet modern technology could be used much more positively than just for entertainment and escapism and passive consumption and self-promotion and narcissism.

    It could be used to boost productivity and production – and reorganise how we cooperate – by sharing knowledge and extending networking to find solutions to business problems so that we can create new things to consume. Not in a hippy way (no bosses or structure) but as means of making big business bigger and better and work and or lives more fulfilling.

    Tho perhaps I’ve strayed off message…..off post….?

  9. Thank you Toni, David and Paul for sharing your thoughts around this topic and I hope that others will do the same. I am in agreement with most, if not all, that has been said. Yes, we must be aware of what’s next and having ‘Things’ that communicate continually – not necessarily with our input – presents us with both challenges and opportunities.

    My reason for posting on this topic is to urge public relations professionals everywhere to involve themselves with what’s ahead, because failure to do so will have significant consequences for the profession, not least of which may be redundancy. We have to understand not just ‘what’s coming’ in the wearable, AI, augmented and dark web spaces but also examine in detail the societal, economic and political changes that are in progress now. We need to understand and acknowledge the implications of these changes and how this affects our professional identity from ethical, leadership and operational perspectives.

    As I write, police SWAT teams riding tanks in #Ferguson have ordered everyone on the streets to put away their devices and stop recording police activity. Robin Williams’ daughter has abandoned social media due to vicious trolls while a tribute meme to her father has been lambasted for encouraging suicide. In New Zealand, the launch of a book, allegedly based on hacked emails, has called into question the ethical behaviour of our political masters. Elsewhere in the world, voices go unheard over rocket fire and families are marooned on mountains of doom. Add in a plague, continual ‘once-in-a-hundred-year’ climate events, ongoing armed conflicts and it all has a rather ‘end-of-days’ Terminator feel to it.

    Yet in truth, I think it is simply that, thanks to our existing technologies, we know more, see more and share more as events unfold, which, in turn, unsettles and overwhelms us but leaves us understanding less. Boundaries around behaviour, images, what’s shared or unshared shift and change with no commonly agreed societal norm, resulting in a confusion of anarchistic content. Every hour, people demonstrate just how awful they can be online – and off. Wearables that allow us to be ‘always on’ will make it even harder for us to come up for air and not drown in data. Wanting to be apart from that environment will be a valid, but perhaps unachievable, protest.

    Yesterday, Microsoft released news of its Accelerator programme which encourages start-ups working on systems that enable the Internet of Everything. Others announced the arrival of a cloud platform for IoE. Couple these developments with the next phase of artificial intelligence promised by the inventors of Siri, Google’s robotics work and more besides and hopefully the realisation of change will dawn, motivating practitioners to learn more, do more and develop strategies to help their organisations and communities cope.

    Paul – your point concerning productivity is particularly valid. Cisco Systems, which yesterday announced 6000 job cuts, has been a champion of IoE, predicting its worth at $19 trillion across the public and private sectors between now and 2022. Cisco’s CEO was quoted in the Wall Street Journal as saying the reductions were designed to make room for adding different kinds of skills and staff in areas such as its data centre, software, security and cloud offerings. Changing systems, changing skills and a changing company.

    Earlier this year, Pew Research published a report into Millennials in Adulthood. This revealed a generation (in the US at least), detached from organised politics, hierarchies and religion, distrustful of people, burdened by debt but linked firmly together through social media. This generation will wear new types of companies on their sleeve, break old economic models and apply available technologies to facilitate their needs. But, if they are disconnected from society and distrustful of others, what companies will they make and what societal changes will result? I suspect the solutions will be very different to the ones we’ve been used to (and probably a little on what might once have been regarded as the ‘hippy side’ Paul, but today is recognised as a non-hierarchical collaborative network).

    Finally Toni – in answer to your question – yes, I did have the Internet of Everything on my radar before and during the Mandate process and, in developing the CPD Wheel after the Mandate was agreed, I tried to incorporate some of the changing skills we need and should be developing. As practitioners we must keep our eyes on the horizon if we are to help others navigate change, as well as understanding the changing tides and the depths through which we sail. Today, we can’t just navigate. We must urgently work with the dockyards on the concept, design and build of vessels that can cope with the new wave of virtual oceans about to take us to some very different worlds.

  10. Fascinating post and discussion. The various predictions and reflections around dystopian or utopian futures all seem to relate to use of power to control others. This goes way beyond PR’s role historically in propaganda, information, persuasion, dialogue, influence, engagement, etc etc. If the machine can control others in society, who needs PR at all?

    I have a couple of thoughts not yet explored here regarding PR in relation to the implications of the expanding Internet of Things.

    First, it seems to me that PR practitioners not only need to wake up to the ethics of what will be increasingly possible and a probable reality – but to even understand why there are ethical questions at all. This requires at least two things from PR practitioners, neither of which I see much evidence of at present.

    1. Better understanding of how ethical decisions must be made by organisations. We’ve seen in the past few weeks several examples of where PR consultancies and in-house practitioners seem to not have any knowledge of ethical frameworks as a basis for the recommendations being made. We can call out the consultancies that flip-flopped over representation around the climate change debate, whether exploiting a high profile celebrity’s suicide is appropriate, as well as the various PR/comms approaches evident in political debate and conflict situations.

    2. PR having any influence over the behaviour of organisations and leaders who seem to increasingly have a default of suppression. This is not only in the high profile cases where military might is evident, but in the simple processes and procedures organisations are introducing to which one is obligated to sign up. As with the ‘good child’ monitoring, we are seeing in the UK schools and doctors stipulating that any use of social media to criticise them will result in removal of the right to education or healthcare. At the same time, we see employees contractually obliged to be ‘brand advocates’ via social media – which is not seen as problematic by the majority of PR/Internal Comms practitioners.

    The Internet of Things will make it ever easier to monitor and punish – but will PR practitioners be able or willing to crawl in the dark recesses of organisations and flag up the inequity of their attitudes and behaviours?

    My second thought is that perhaps we need increasingly to see PR outside of organisations – acting within communities to maximise the ability to mobilise against those who have power and seek to maintain and enhance it. Social movement thinking and theory is largely lacking in the PR literature, but shouldn’t be. The Internet of Things offers the potential to challenge authority. We already see how exposing organisations, governments and individuals has the power to change behaviour. Rather than just seeing PR as the defense of these miscreants – PR has a future in championing this counter-balance. Not simply to be disruptive but to ensure there is some reckoning, and helping build new opportunities for wealth creation not just protecting those who have a vested interest in maximising the machine over people power.

    Lots more one could debate and say on the topic – but I think the Internet of Things has potential for empowering PR – most likely outside the traditional organisations where arguably on today’s evidence, the calibre of practitioners aren’t going to do more than act as propagandists for the cause of control.

  11. David Phillips says:

    Here then is the bottom line. There is a new reality. It is not recognised by many and for another group with a simplistic view it is the same as before but different. For some, the new reality is recognised but we (yes I think I am one of them) have a poor understanding.

    The evidence of the consequential changed forms of human existence for many people has been revealed in this discussion.

    Of course, this evolution stretches well beyond Public Relations but that does not mean we should not be engaged and involved in attempting to identify, follow and respond to the changed environment.

    What is encouraging is that we can have a debate about it.

    For so many years, it was not possible.

  12. Paul Seaman says:

    David has a point but I fear he rather over-plays the tech side of the problem. I accept that the internet of things will – to build on what David might be worried about but hasn’t highlighted – merge the on- and off-line worlds and more than likely (and problematically in its Orwellian implications) erode the last barriers between our private and public lives.

    But I rather suggest – in contrast to David – that the tech bit of this equation is more shaped by our modern culture than it is responsible for shaping it. That is to say the technology is neutral and its application reflects our supposed needs, which today are narcissistic. This goes someway, I suggest, to explain why today’s new tech innovations have so little upside for productivity growth and pose so many problems on the ethical front.

    If PR is to help out here, it might suggest ways in which the division between the private and public spheres need to be reclaimed. That’s a tough call when our clients are paying us to go in the opposite direction…..

  13. Helen Slater says:

    Just to note: This today regarding wearables – implantables are here and being used. http://bit.ly/1trJJB5. Certainly CIPR weighed in with the heavy-weights as well on wearable technology with its debate in the House of Commons on 7 July on this very subject. It’s good that Catherine has carried the debate further here. I hope that we will see this continue in other forums as well, as we do have to address the question of ethics around this subject. How ethical is it for people to have RFID microchips implanted? Today, it’s voluntary. Tomorrow? I would hope our Codes of Ethics would address this and they should, but I believe that’s a good place to start the examination – are our ethical codes robust enough for the 21st century? I don’t believe so.

    Is the Global Alliance prepared to make this a topic for serious discussion? Our respective professional associations need to take up this banner as well. PRINZ could be a follower to CIPR perhaps.

    • Helen – while I agree with you that this is an immediate issue given that wearables, implants and other innovative use of technology are here now and that this raises ethical considerations, I disagree with your resulting questions.

      Ethical issues aren’t simple to address in a complex world and codes have only ever been one option to ethical decision-making. Indeed, I would argue that abiding by a code is removing the decision-making as it is simply following orders – and we all know where that approach to ethics can lead.

      Sometimes it is perfectly ethical to have microchips fitted – it depends entirely on factors such as the willingness of the participant, the resulting benefits and so on. Where there is more debate relates to where people may be implanted against their knowledge or agreement, and/or the benefits are in the interests of others rather than the individual. There are many other such issues. Where do the ethical issues for PR differ here compared to other medical or other procedures? Does this relate to whether or not it is acceptable for such procedures to be promoted, and what arguments can/should be made, etc. How do we currently consider such ethical dilemmas and are codes really going to help?

      As I’ve argued many times before, we need much better understanding of ethical matters if PR practitioners are to stand up and claim to be guardians or counsel in this field. That starts with a proper understanding of what codes can and cannot do, how they help (and sometime hinder) consideration of ethical issues and engagement with the various philosophical and other approaches to examining the nature of ethical matters affecting both PR, those with whom we work, and the wider society.

      Anything less is simply tick box ethics and doesn’t move PR any further forwards than Bernays got a century ago in calling for regulation and codes of conduct. This is a bigger matter than separating the ‘good’ from the ‘bad’ (whatever that may mean) or simply claiming that we’re ethical because we abide by nebulous codes IMHO.

      • Helen Slater says:

        I’m puzzled Heather. Are you saying therefore, that our Codes of Ethics, which provide not mindless or nebulous rules, but a framework which provide us with guidance as to those judgements based on moral ethics that GJ Warnock comments on (thank you Paul), are irrelevant.

        Our Codes of Practice are not just as a tick box exercise. They mean something and we can be held to account. If you take that further, you could therefore say that laws are irrelevant as people comply with those without thought. They too, provide us with guidance.

        I haven’t said that it is unethical to have microchips fitted. What I was referring to was the fact that microchips are another step in wearable technology as Catherine was describing. As such, voluntary fitting of these can be perfectly ethical and useful as the article I posted described. However, how ethical would it be if former prisoners, having served their time, were forced to wear them after release, for instance? Or if employees were told a condition of their employment would be to have a microchip implanted to ensure they are where they say they are at any given time, to be tracked by their employer. (Keeping in mind this could be done through GPS on phones now, except phones can be turned off).

        I agree Heather, that ethical issues are not easy to address. Hence my questions. We do need to re-examine our Codes of Ethics to take such situations into account. To flick off Codes of Ethics as nebulous, that we are simply claiming to be ethical because we ‘abide by them’ is tantamount to querying the need for them at all.

        There are many who see abiding by the letter of the Code of Ethics as equating to ethical behaviour and I have observed that at close quarters, unfortunately. However, that doesn’t mean that the Codes of Ethics are nebulous. It depends on one’s personal code as well. There are laws against speeding too. That doesn’t mean many don’t break those laws but those people still see themselves as law-abiding.

        To go back to the topic in question, Codes provide a framework and around wearable technology, the framework has to be robust to deal with those very questions you raise Heather. Hence my suggestion they be revised. Because there are those in PR who don’t abide by the Codes of Ethics, or abide only by the letter not the spirit, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use them as our basis from which to work. IMHO.

        • toni muzi falconi says:

          I would like to ‘butt in’ this conversation between Heather and Helen and also ask Catherine if she feels like giving her version of this story.
          I refer to the development of the Melbounre Mandate.

          Catherine and I had agreed to co-facilitate the part related to ‘responsiiblity’ .

          I had very much insisted that the term ‘reponsibility’ be preferred to that of ‘ethics’.. and this for at least three reasons:

          a) pr and ethics are stereotyped as an oxymoron and I have always had problems with the profession self appointing herself as the ‘ethical conscience of the organization (contrary to what many of my very best friends such as Heather, but also Laurie Grunig claim;

          b) in every of our classrooms, whatever the subject, every teacher (clearly in a self justifiably mode) also teaches ethics in pr and in most cases this teaching reminds me of the morning class prayer in a religious school: nobody is interested, nobody listens and the teacher then contradicts herself when she moves on to the ‘real stuff’. Students come out thinking that ‘Holy Mary, Mother of God is a litany and lip service…. but the real stuff is somewhere else’;

          c) professional associations, some more some less, have dismally failed in the last 60 years in this area. There must be very good reasons….to the ultimate point of hypocrisy by which the worlds largest association solemnly announced more than 10 years ago that it would not even try to enforce its code for fear of being sued and financially ruined…

          So I agreed with Catherine that hopefully without mentioning the term ethics (it is used only once…in the text..and I consider this a success..) we would articulate a description of societal, organizational, professional and personal responsibility of public relators.

          Back to wearable technology a good friend who has followed our discussion send me this link that is interesting http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/21/business/new-era-in-safety-when-cars-talk-to-one-another.html?ref=business

        • Helen – I’ve responded with my thoughts about codes in a response to Paul’s comment below. But wanted to pick up on the issue of ethics around wearable technology that you raise. The instances relating to implants (which is probably the extreme) don’t seem to be specific to this case. They relate to broader issues – and whether or not someone should be forced (eg prisoners) or contracted (employees) to be implanted will be addressed by legislators. Yes, PR practitioners may be involved in advocating various perspectives publicly or through lobbying. But the actual ethical questions won’t be about this but about the rights/wrongs/bits in between relating to the behaviour. Is the role of PR to be able to counsel clients/employers on their ethical responsibilities? If so, then I really think we aren’t up to the job and a code won’t address this.

          I have been thinking more broadly about such dilemmas in relation to the killing of James Foley. First in relation to payment of a ransom which has been discussed – there is a difference between what is legal (easy to answer) and what is ethical (more difficult). Of course the code argument is that if it is illegal, you don’t do it and that’s then an ethical position. But, the reality is more complicated as yes, we have to take into account personal ethics but also national laws, and often corporate policies – so where does our ‘professional’ code come in? And, we know that in PR our role may be to justify a legal or ethical position – and/or argue against this.

          The other aspect which I think is mainly an ethical one is the release of information regarding a failed US mission to rescue James Foley and other hostages. Was it legal to issue this information? Was it ethical to do so? Would that decision be covered by any PR code? It is being open, honest and transparent – but whose best interests are being considered.

          Aren’t these the same kind of dilemmas that will be faced with data collection around wearables or implants? And if so, isn’t the question one about whether codes within PR are, have ever been or will ever be, fit for purpose?

  14. Paul Seaman says:

    If there’s one book on morality and ethics we should all read it is “The Object of Morality” by G J Warnock, University paperbacks.

    “Moral actions require judgement based on their moral merits. But pre-set ethical rules rule that out.”

  15. Paul Seaman says:

    Helen, yes I think it wholly right to question whether we need codes of ethics at all. Though – I accept – the outcome of such a debate remains open and may never be fully resolved. But….

    I’ve long argued on PRC and elsewhere that most professors of PR working in the Academy talk about morals and ethics while revealing – unwittingly – their ignorance about the subject. It is as if Aristotle, Emmanuel Kant and Adam Smith (who was a moral phiIosopher who wrote about capitalism rather than an economist who wrote about moral philosophy) have been bypassed or dismissed or never lived.

    Anyway, here’s what the classically-trained G J Warnock had to say on a few of the points you raised in answer to Heather:

    “In a nutshell: rules of law are distinguishable from, and ‘give effect’ to, views people have about what is, for instance, objectionable in conduct. But supposed ‘moral’ rules would not ‘give effect’ to people’s moral views; to talk about them [so] is just a misleading way of talking about those views themselves. To bring rules in – at any rate in this way – is to add nothing but a quite substantial risk of confusion.”

    And:

    “Rules of this sort, then, conspicuously rules of law, could be said – along with, often, attendant procedures of enforcement – to constitute a kind of institutional superstructure upon, and over and above, the views people hold. But morality, I have suggested, is not an institution in that sense; it is not a superstructure of rules over and above, and having as its basis, moral views to which it somehow gives institutionalized ‘effect’.”

    Now, I’m not saying G J Warnock is God. But I am saying that to discuss ethics and morality properly – and with any chance of success and credibility – we need to move beyond the superficial spin that has dominated this discussion over recent years. In other words, we ought to do the subject matter – which is philosophically rooted – more justice than we mostly currently do. And the first step forward is to raise the level of discussion by questioning everything.

    • Fascinating to see Paul and Toni pretty much in agreement over how poorly ethics is understood and taught in PR.

      I feel that I set out my view in a post I wrote nearly 3 years ago now: http://greenbanana.wordpress.com/2011/09/22/follow-the-green-brick-road-for-an-ethical-pr-future/

      Under a heading of : Lions, and tigers, and bears, oh my. I said:

      Looking at the future we may wish for PR, we clearly face many challenges. But fittingly in the PRSA Ethics Month we can draw on the lessons from Wicked and take a revisionist look at public relations.

      Our parallel narrative requires reflection on what it means to work in PR and consider the ethical dimensions of our role. By this, I mean going beyond simply seeking to distance the good witches from the wicked, or justifying bad outcomes by reference to good intentions.

      Arguments for PR to secure a place in the boardroom of the Emerald City must be accompanied by evidence that we have the intelligence, responsibility and courage to lead on ethical challenges – which means having a robust understanding of the philosophical aspects of values, ethics and morals.

      We need to avoid platitudes relating to codes, corporate social responsibility and social marketing approaches. PR practitioners can only advise on ethical behaviour if they really offer more than an illusion of wizardry. This means engaging with issues relating to power in society, ethical resistance, meta-ethics as well as normative and applied ethics.

      I don’t believe the best road is to embed ethical codes within consultancies as some argue. Rules alone do not make people ethical – rather they tend to simplify the issues that are worthy of deeper reflection and understanding.

      In a complex world requiring difficult decisions to be made we need to invest in a field of ethical enquiry for public relations. This should involve experts in areas such as moral/ethical philosophy working with leaders in PR (practice and academia) to study issues relating to our area of responsibility. Such an approach is evident in medicine, law, accountancy and business ethics.

      Let’s get serious about the road public relations needs to tread and establish a centre for ethical enquiry which would:

      – draw together existing knowledge,
      – undertake research, training and education,
      – engage with various experts and indeed, critics of PR
      – investigate and guide on issues of debate and practice
      – co-ordinate the interest, commitment and plans of those who wish to reflect intelligence, integrity and intrepidus in their work
      – develop a credible leadership position globally for PR ethics.

      I haven’t changed my mind on the need to look at ethics in a more robust way than codes of conduct (or frameworks) or or else we will continue forever to see an automatic response as Toni says that derides any connection between PR and ethics.

  16. Paul seaman says:

    Heather, you are mistaken to confound my school of thought with Toni’s. He wants to supplant ethics by talking about “responsibility” (which actually flows from the former) because, as he puts it, “PR and ethics are stereotyped as an oxymoron”. Therefore it strikes me that his concern, as ever, appears to be impression management. Whereas what I am criticizing is not the importance given to ethics and morality but the degradation of their meaning and value by the merchants of spin.

    Such differences matter.

    We ought not to abandon the language and guidance that the logic and reasoning behind ethics and morality provide to influence both our behaviour and that of our clients. Hence my call is to rescue morality and ethics – not to ditch worrying about them because we find doing so too challenging to attempt. In other words, let’s not throw out the baby with the bath water.

    • My apologies for not being specific. I meant that you were in agreement over the point of PR practitioners (and educators) not being up to the job of understanding ethics currently. Yes, you have different pathways to and from this point but it did seem that there was agreement at that intersection ;-)

    • toni muzi falconi says:

      I had promised to myself a couple of years ago that I would not in public respond to your frequent acid comments Paul, but this time I must transgress…. You caustically adjust my thinking as ‘impression management’ term, as if I was subtly playing with words..

      Of course responsibility flows from ethics…..?

      Is this not you now ‘playing with words’?

      Is this the dialogue and conversation we love in this blog?

      I have never denied that you sometime offer intelligent and interesting perspectives. Please keep it up. thank you

  17. Helen Slater says:

    Fascinating discussion. I do agree, ethics as presently portrayed is poorly understood and as long as it is seen as something that is peripheral to the main event of PR, (and I agree, on the whole it is), then we are in trouble. I agree too, rules don’t make people ethical, any more than laws make people law-abiding. As long as people are in the equation, then we will have difficulty in ethics being applied in our industry. Whether you call it ethics, or responsibility, or as I like to see it, maintenance of trust-worthiness, it doesn’t really matter. At least Codes of Conduct are a basis of expectations. I like the idea of drawing from the medical and legal fraternities regarding this issue. Of course, they too have their problems and it’s a never-ending quest which has no perfect answer – so, no, codes of ethics are never going to be the complete answer. They are the answer we have right now. Whatever we have, the success or otherwise will depend on individual practice and industry application.

  18. Judy Gombita says:

    (Late to the commenting party, although I’ve been reading everyone else’s with great interest.)

    Catherine, thank you for offering to write about this topic and offer an opinion on issues public relations practitioners should be focusing attention on; the number of page views—particularly from new readers—and comments attest that it has struck a chord.

    I think one of the biggest challenges is the fact that the average consumer appears to be sanguine about the data being collected about them on a daily basis. That is, until there is a breach, and then they are up in arms, with some boycotting the related companies and/or asking for government intervention.

    Ergo, if one is in the role of counsel to leadership, would that not mean to lobby to make evident to customers and other stakeholder publics the inherent disadvantages and potential harm when they willing or unknowingly allow access to data? As such information is considered marketing gold, I’m quite positive very few companies would listen and act willingly, unless an edict came from regulatory bodies. And by that I mean governments, etc., not public relations associations.

    Unless, of course, a way was found to share the data with the subjects in question, in a way that was useful to them as well. Think Amazon or film streaming sites that provide algorithmic suggestions on other things that are possibly of interest, based on past buying patterns. Of course it won’t work for all products and services—at least not in the current practice. But perhaps “data sharing” for mutual benefit is the path forward, in ways not yet envisioned or devised.

  19. Judy Gombita says:

    I noticed a Twittermate pointing to this UK “Fair Data” site and article. Useful for this discussion, methinks.

    Ten principles [of Fair Data usage]

    By becoming a Fair Data company you agree to adhere to ten core principles. The principles support and complement other standards such as ISOs, and the requirements of Data Protection legislation.

    1. We will ensure that all personal data is collected with customers’ consent.
    2. We will not use personal data for any purpose other than that for which consent was given, respecting customers’ wishes about the use of their data.
    3. We will make sure that customers have access to their personal data that we hold, and that we tell them how we use it.
    4. We will protect personal data and keep it secure and confidential.
    5. We will ensure staff understand that personal data is just that – personal – and ensure that it is treated with respect.
    6. We will ensure that the vulnerable and under-age are properly protected by the processes we use for data collection.
    7. We will manage our data supply chain to the same ethical standards we expect from other suppliers.
    8. We will ensure that ethical best practice in personal data is integral to our procurement process.
    9. We will ensure that all staff who have access to personal data are properly trained in its use.
    10. We will not use personal data if there is uncertainty as to whether the Fair Data Principles have been applied.

    Members and Company Partners are regulated under the MRS Code of Conduct. This Code covers the collection and use of personal data and emphasises the need to protect all respondents from harm – particularly the young and vulnerable. The ten core principles of Fair Data work in tandem with the MRS Code of Conduct.

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