Future of PR and social media for International Air Transport Association crisis communications conference

IATA Crisis Communications in the Social Media Age conference

Stuart Bruce speaking at the IATA Crisis Communications in the Social Media Age conference. (c) Donald Steel

This morning I gave a keynote at the global ‘Crisis Communications in the Social Media Age’ conference in Istanbul. I followed an excellent and energetic opening keynote by BBC world business news presenter Aeron Heslehurst. This is ‘roughly’ the speech I gave in that I spoke mainly without notes, but based on this text I’d prepared:

Good morning. And thank you Aaron for that fascinating insight into how social media has changed journalism. I’d just like to echo his comments about the BBC as it certainly has led the way in many respects – pioneers like Euan Semple, who has written a brilliant book called ‘Organisations Don’t Tweet, People Do’. People like Trushar Barot who sources and verifies user generated content. Or journalists like Sue Llewellyn who has trained many of the BBC presenters and journalists you see on screen.

My name is Stuart Bruce and I’ve been tasked with speaking to you about the future of social media and its impact on public relations. I’m a member of the elected council of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Public Relations and also a founder member of its social media panel.

Before I start I just want to point out the Social Media Friendly logo on my one and only PowerPoint slide. That means you’re welcome to tweet, Instagram, Vine or Snapchat at will.

In the next half an hour or so I’m going to talk about what some of the implications of social media are for the public relations profession. And I’ll conclude by identifying the new skills and attributes of the modern PR professional.

It’s no coincidence that I’ll be talking about many of the same themes as Aaron.

What I won’t be talking too much about are the tools we can use. I will be talking about mobile, data and wearable technology as the drivers and ethics, real time and content as the issues.

This is about putting the public back into public relations and the social back into social media.

Even today when social media should be far more mature we still too often hear a lot of FUD – fear, uncertainty and doubt. One of the greatest fears you still hear is the fear of losing control. Well in more than 25 years of practising professional public relations I’ve never once been in control and I’ve never met an honest PR person who was. Advertising and marketing people might have used to have control. They paid to control what they wanted to say, when they wanted to say it, where they wanted to say it and how they wanted to say it.

But public relations has always depended on persuasion, information, advocacy, the truth. The clue is in our name. Public relations has always relied on relationships. Nothing has changed, except perhaps our jobs should in theory be easier as now we have the tools that make it easier to listen and maintain two-way relationships.

So why are some PR people still afraid? Uncertain? Doubtful? The truth is. And it’s an ugly truth is that some people who call themselves PR people aren’t anything of the sort. They are mere publicists practising propaganda.

Real public relations professionals will embrace social media as we have the expertise and experience to make the most of it. If you are sceptical it’s not just me saying this. But Sir Martin Sorrell, head of WPP says “in this digital age, PR has an advantage.” In his interview with PRWeek Danny Rogers asked Martin if the danger was that the growth of social media meant that it would be adopted and subsumed by advertising agencies. Sorrel doesn’t think so: “Ad agencies do say they can do this stuff, but they can’t.”

Paul Holmes of The Holmes Report has this wonderful analogy about public relations being great at find true stories, but we are not good enough at telling them while advertising just makes stories up, but does it really, really well. Today people want truth and authenticity. Advertising can’t do that. Ever.

So this morning my emphasis isn’t going to be on the mechanics and platforms of social media. I won’t be predicting that Whisper is the next Twitter or Snapchat is the next Facebook.

It’s a given that social media is important and that it’s about people and human behaviour rather than the latest shiny new toy.
We should all know by now that if you aren’t starting to make your business social then eventually you won’t have a business.

For PR professionals if we aren’t making social a core part of everything we do then we don’t deserve a job. If we think social media is something for the social media expert or for digital experts then we don’t deserve a job. If you think you personally don’t need to embrace social media in order to be a true public relations professional then you don’t deserve a job. There’s the door. Go sightseeing and then hop on the plane home. Because you’re not a true public relations professional. You’re a danger to your employer.

Social media impacts every part of a business and organisation. This morning I want to explore some of these with you. We’ll look at ethics and governance. The importance of data. Big or otherwise. We’ll ask what does the speed and real-time nature of social media really mean. Is the fact that every company is a media company a threat or an opportunity?

But first I want to examine what are the factors that are shaping the future.

I see three main drivers. Mobile, data and wearable technology.

Most social networks are now mobile first. Almost 70% of Facebook time is spent on mobile. It’s 86% for Twitter, 98% for Instagram or 100% for Snapchat. This is perhaps the only advantage of being a late adopter with social media. You don’t have a legacy strategy and infrastructure to replace. From day zero you can pursue a mobile first strategy. Low cost smart Android and Windows smartphones are accelerating this trend as many emerging economies move straight from low levels of internet access to fast 4G networks without ever developing widespread fixed line broadband.

Data is everywhere. Edward Snowdon wants us to be afraid of big government prying into our lives. But why be afraid of big government when we freely provide our life story to social networks and give up our privacy to airlines in return for a bribe of a few more air miles. Private companies pose more of a threat than governments ever could. In democracies governments answer to the people. We’ve seen that today even draconian dictatorships are vulnerable. But what control and oversight do we have over private companies? Gigantic multi-national and trans-national corporations have no respect for borders or governments.

Personally, I’m more likely to trust what a democratic government will do with my data than what a private company, with the sole motive of profit, will do with it.

Today a supermarket can know via your purchases that you’re pregnant before you even tell your friends and family… or even your partner! Yesterday Philips talked about its new digital marketing strategy and how it would take data from its connected healthcare devices to provide insight for its marketing. It’s anonymised data, but it’s still our data that it is using.

Our ability to manipulate data provides us with the potential to wield great power. Power that me must wield responsibly.
Data is great for PR people. Just like how Aaron talked about how the BBC can see what stories work we can analyse how people consume and share our content. We can understand how Facebook and Twitter conversations can represent different parts of the community. We can use it to measure and evaluate our success.

Wearables have only just started to impact us. Google Glass is still at a rudimentary stage. Apple and Microsoft have smartwatches poised to launch to follow the lead of Samsung and Sony. Our steps, heart rate, body temperature and blood pressure are being monitored 24/7 by digital health devices like Fitbit.

Their sensor technology and ability to communicate will accelerate and magnify the changes we are already seeing. Yes, it can benefit many people. But it will also increase the gap between the information haves and have nots. Our notions of privacy and confidentiality will be challenged.

Imagine as I came on stage that my smart watch broadcast who I was and my profile flashed into your smart glasses. You might be able to see last night’s Swarm check in and find out where I’ll be next week from my Tripit profile. Anyone of you might be sitting recording, photographing and videoing what I’m saying right here, right now. If you are you’re welcome to as this is a social media friendly talk that you’re free to tweet and share with your networks as you want to.

So if mobile, data and wearables are the drivers shaping our future what are the issues we as PR professionals need to consider?
The first and foremost for me is ethics and governance. This is a hot topic at the moment. Last week I participated in a Chatham House rule round table at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations to debate ethics and social media. On Monday there was a CIPR and Tomorrow’s Company sponsored debate at the Houses of Parliament. The motion was “You don’t need compliance rules when your employees have social media.” The debate was chaired by Lord Black, a director of the Telegraph Media Group.

The fact that this debate was happening and the motion was carried overwhelmingly highlights the impact that social media is having on ethics and corporate social responsibility.

Social media means your organisation is far more exposed than ever before. Even if you don’t choose to be transparent people will see through your corporate armour. Employees, customers, suppliers, shareholders, regulators on social media will see through your shield and expose you.

So your company has got to behave better and more responsibly. It’s got to be ethical, not just because it’s the right thing to do. But because you’ll be caught and exposed if you don’t. Corporate social responsibility isn’t philanthropy. It’s not about what charities or arts you support. It’s about doing the right thing. Doing the right thing for the environment. Doing right by your employees. Doing right by your shareholders. Doing right by society.

Social media means ethical corporate behaviour is more important than ever. As PR professionals we should be helping the CEO maintain your company’s licence to operate. Your licence to operate comes from the people.

On a smaller scale it’s also impacting on PR people more directly. It has always been ethically wrong to mislead and lie. That’s what all the PR codes of conduct around the world tell us. But some PR people have. Maybe they’ve put up a token resistance to the board director that wants them to do it, but ultimately they’ve complied.

You can’t lie and mislead anymore. Not just because it’s ethically wrong. But because you’ll get caught. And the consequences of getting caught are often far worse than the original misdemeanour you were trying to cover up.

We live in a 24 second society. That’s how long it takes to type a 140 character tweet.

Too many of us think of that as a negative. We think only of how it can harm us with the rapid dissemination of negative news and rumours detrimental to our reputation.

But in fact it is just as likely to work in our favour as it is against. We can tap into the wisdom of the web and discover what people really think, rather than what opinion formers and influencers tell us.

When UK supermarket Walmart Asda was universally criticised by the press for its ‘sexist’ Christmas TV advert that depicted Mum doing all the work to make Christmas special it didn’t pull the ad, but fought back with social media. Because it knew from the reactions of its Facebook fans and Twitter followers that it’s primary customers – the Asda mum – loved it. The Asda Mum could see the humour and reality of her life right there on the small screen. The instant reaction from customers was at odds with the expert opinion from journalists and pressure groups.

And that’s another trend for the good. Tony Blair’s former director of communications, Alastair Campbell, talks about how the real public are often a lot more reasonable than the media and journalists. Now we have an opportunity to talk directly to them in real time.

Companies. PR people. We can publish our own content without the need for an intermediary or filter that is mainstream media.
When Tom Foremski quit the Financial Times he was the first big mainstream media journalist to start making a living from a blog.  Today he’s one of the world’s foremost thinkers on the future of media, journalism and communications. He coined the term ‘Every Company is a Media Company’ to describe the emerging trend of companies becoming publishers in their own right.

Companies like Cisco, Nissan, Walmart and Unilever recognise and embrace this. They recruit former journalists from CNN and the BBC to produce quality news. But many companies jumping on the content marketing band wagon get it spectacularly wrong.

Earlier this week Anne Gregory, president of the Global Alliance of international PR associations, tweeted about her abhorrence of the term corporate journalism. It’s an abhorrence that I and Tom Foremski share. True journalism must be independent of a corporate line, even if that corporate line is to create impartial, unbiased content. That’s why I urge you to embrace corporate media and to publish your own content. But to publish quality content. Content that is what your stakeholders want to read, watch and listen to. How often does CNN broadcast news stories about CNN? How often does the Financial Times write stories about itself? How often does the BBC report about itself… OK, maybe that last one doesn’t work! You know the answer. So why when creating their content do companies always talk about themselves?

Dom Burch at Asda cites the 1 in 10 rule. For every one thing that Asda wants to say it says nine things its customers want more.

There are no audiences anymore. You will fail if you think people are interested in what you’ve got to say.

And if every company is a media company then we also have a duty of care to our stakeholders. Our duty of care is that as we publish our own content, which is the right thing to do, we don’t murder the free press. We must value and nurture mainstream media and professional journalists as they still provide that essential public scrutiny that holds businesses, governments and organisations to account.

Ethically we must ensure our content is accurate, truthful, comprehensive and accessible to all. That means thinking about the channels we use, the language and its accessibility to those with disabilities.

But if every company is a media company we must also remember that every customer, every activist, every stakeholder is also a potential media company. If we can create our crisis communications blog in minutes then they can equally create their attack blog.

When I started in PR more than 25 years ago I was taught that you never pick fights with people who buy ink by the barrel. But today, every one of us, every one of them can have ink by the barrel for free.

So if mobile, data and wearable technology are the drivers and ethics, real time and content are the issues then where are we now?
Stephen Waddington, Ketchum’s European digital and social director and president of the UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations likens it the human life span. As babies we have no social profiles and find it all a bit baffling. Alarmingly there are still some companies, organisations and PR people at that stage. Then we become noisy children and start shouting out our marketing messages, regardless of if people actually want to hear what we’ve got to say. And most of the time they don’t.

However, most organisations and companies are now teenagers and have learnt the basics, but still largely treat social media as an external communications channel. Like teenagers everywhere they like to strut their stuff and show off to pull that sexy girl or boy, or in this case to win the latest award.

But now as we reach maturity as young adults we’ve learnt how to listen and understand so social media becomes embedded in more and more aspects of the business moving from marketing and communications to customer service and beyond. The future will be the truly social organisation with employees collaborating within and without and walls first of all become glass, but eventually beginning to come down all together.

So finally what will the PR professional of the future look like?

She will know what public relations actually is. Public relations is about reputation – the result of what you do, what you say and what others say about you. The result of what you do. It’s not just about what you say or what others say about you. It’s a result of what you do. The PR professionals of the past knew this. Too many PR people of today have forgotten. The PR professional of the future will know this and practice this.

She will be media neutral. Good public relations has never, ever been just about media relations. This obsession with newspaper, radio and television coverage – earned media – is a rabbit hole we disappeared down in the 1950s. Social media is an opportunity to emerge from our burrow and be genuine public relations counsellors as comfortable with shared, paid and owned media as we are with earned media.

She will be measurable. If I was to ask you all to say what your favourite subject at school was I can guarantee most of you won’t say maths. PR as a profession has been afraid of robust measurement and evaluation. We shouldn’t be. We can’t be. The Barcelona Principles and the work of AMEC points the way to robust measurement and evaluation. But there is no one size fits all solution. Every company, every situation, every issue is unique. That’s why the measurement and evaluation criteria that you use will be different to the ones that you use.

She will be ethical in everything she does. That means in her personal ethics. It means abiding by the ethical codes of conduct of your professional institutions and trade associations. But far bigger than this it means counselling the board and c-suite on how your organisation can behave ethically. This requires real public relations leadership to know what the right thing to do is and to be taken seriously enough to not just be listened to, but for your counsel to be acted upon.

She will be professional with real PR qualifications and a commitment to continuous professional development to ensure he has the essential competencies at every stage of her career from entry through to heading up a global team. She won’t simply rely on experience and transferable skills from a previous career, but will learn from PR’s wealth of academic research and knowledge.
She will be trusted. Trusted to do the right thing. You need to be trusted by your colleagues. Trusted by journalists, social media influencers, politicians and other stakeholders. You need to be trusted by your boss. Tomorrow’s world won’t give you time to get approval every time. You’ve got to be trusted to get it right. You’ve got to be trusted to tell the truth.

Tomorrow’s public relations professional will be better than we are today. Not just because we want to be, but because we need to be.

My question to you is are you ready? What have you done to radically improve the way you and your team work? What have you done to challenge the status quo? I tell you it’s not enough. None of us have done enough.

When you look into the mirror do you see the PR professional of the future? Do you? If not you should be afraid, very afraid.