PR Careers: Public Relations is Not All About Standing Out or Self-promotion

I’ll be speaking at a student career day in a few weeks, and while I have some ideas I’d like to share with the students, I thought I’d do some online research to see what others in the PR business are telling students about the public relations field.

In the course of that, I ran across a particular blog post that out of respect to its author I won’t attribute his name here, but I will take a few minutes to counter a running theme in it.

The theme is, “In PR, we should stop trying to fit in with everyone else. We need to stand out.” Tied to this, the PR pro advocated heavily for self-promotion as a way to get your career moving.

First, in the public relations field, yes, the goal is not to strive for sameness. Differentiation is often a strategic facet of what we do, but it’s not the mission or mantra. Even then, there are certain ways to stand out when that’s important. Keep in mind, people often behave in many ways that get attention, but all too often it’s the wrong kind of attention.

This is not a new mindset. Back in the days of ink-stained editors in smoke-filled newsrooms, stereotypical publicists had a mantra: “It doesn’t matter what they say, as long as they spell my name right.” It was a fallacy then and it is now.

To be sure, the writer of the post I cited spends his days in marketing communications within the confines of an ad agency that focuses on consumer marketing. In that narrow niche, it’s not uncommon to rely more heavily on standing out for attention’s sake.

Why?

Oftentimes, you’re selling a commodity against other commodities. The transaction is consistently simple. You’re always selling something. It’s always to the masses. And in the end, the thing you’re selling at its core is no different than the competition.

In those cases, the only things that will make your product stand out are the packaging, the marketing, the art, the social, the gimmicks, the taglines. Do anything to get noticed. It’s all about just getting noticed.

But the truth is, in the decades I’ve worked in PR, “getting noticed” has never been the overarching mission even when the purpose of the program has been to sell something. Effective marketing is smarter than that.

More often, the mission is to make credible and productive connections with the right people who can help our organizations achieve some business or organizational objective.

In a crisis, the mission may be to make sure everyone is safe after an accident, and to make sure all of the right people know what’s happening.

In the workplace, the mission may be to make sure every employee has a full understanding of the competitive pressures a company faces and what each person can do to help the company achieve the larger goals.

Even in our most common discipline, media relations, the goal isn’t always just to get noticed. Oftentimes, it’s to connect with the news media’s viewers or readers on matters much more comprehensive than selling a commodity product. Not too long ago, a media relations program I handled on was centered on educating the public on energy and environmental issues.

The point is, if I were a student reading the blog post that I cited at the start of this post, I would come away with a very narrow view of the PR field as nothing more than creative grandstanding. That’s a narrow and amateurish view of PR.

When the writer advocated for self-promotion as a means to get ahead, he didn’t couch it. Apparently, he believes no-holds-barred self-promotion is the way to go, most likely because it has helped him. I’d venture that he may not realize the number of times he may have hurt himself in this way.

The truth is, while we all have to establish ourselves in our careers and create a “personal brand,” if you will, shameless self-promotion is a sure way to alienate coworkers, managers, some existing clients and more than a few potential clients.

In the end, a career in public relations is not all about self-promotion and trying to be different just to stand out. It’s about connecting with people using proven means, or coming up with new and creative ways if that’s what’s required to get the job done.

If you’re considering a career in PR, the most critical thing to know is that public relations is not all about, “Look at me!”

More to the point, it’s better to adopt the belief that if you’re my audience, it’s all about you.

My Favorite Crisis: Helping a CEO in Time of Grief

No one likes a crisis, but for those who have had to deal with them the stories aren’t always as dire as it may appear at first glance. Some will point to the opportunity to make something right in a situation that could have been far worse. Others will tell stories about how going through a trying time with colleagues and stakeholders in the end helped them and their organizations forge stronger bonds.

My Favorite Crisis

A cross-section of crisis situations that I’ve handled have ranged from bankruptcy filings and missed earnings expectations to litigation and workplace situations. None of these problems were inherently positive, but there were a few that when I think about it I’m glad I was there to help.

The one that comes most prominently to mind was the time I received a call from the wife of the CEO of a tech firm who told me that during the night his father, the chairman of the company, had died. Since his father, who was liked, respected and admired by many, had suffered from a serious life-threatening health condition, I had a plan in place for this possibility.

Prior to that morning, I had informed the CEO that should the worst happen, I was prepared on the communications front. So, when it actually happened, he didn’t have to do anything more than to tell his wife to call me and say, “We know you have a plan for this. Implement it.”

Immediately, I felt thankful that I was in a position to alleviate some of the burden from the CEO in his time of grief.

The Problem

The company was publicly traded, so the biggest concern was the possible reaction from analysts on Wall Street and investors. Since the death happened over a weekend, we knew that we had until the stock market opened on Monday morning to prepare.

In the end, this event was a litmus test in the confidence the market had in the CEO and the company’s leadership team.

Other important concerns were the impact the news might have on customers and employees, though these concerns were somewhat less because most customers and employees had substantive experience with the organization and readily understood that day-to-day operations would not be affected.

The Risks and Complications

The major risk in this situation was that a negative impact on the company’s stock valuation could have an effect on current and potential investors, employees who were invested in the company, and on the company’s reputation.

The Approach

The most important thing we did was have a plan in place for the scenario that eventually happened. We knew in advance what the challenges would be. We knew who our most important stakeholders would be and what they would need to know and want to know.

The plan called for a quick all-hands-on-deck management meeting over the weekend. I was able to use the plan as a meeting agenda and fill in as much information as possible so that I had the substance needed for all communications. These included disclosures to the media, employees, customers and others. We were able to quickly establish internal and external communications protocols.

The key message was that while this event was extremely sad and troubling, since the CEO had been in place for some time, and had been the driver behind the company’s currently strong performance, the sad news would have no impact on the day-to-day operations.

We were well prepared to announce the news to all important stakeholders before the market opened that Monday.

The Outcome

When the market opened on Monday, we had already communicated the news broadly to the media and to the analyst community on Wall Street. Employees and customers were informed personally and directly by their managers and representatives.

At the opening bell, the company’s stock price was not impacted by the news. There were no sudden point drops. From the standpoint of the market, it was generally understood that even with the loss of its chairman, the company remained in good hands.

For me, the thing that makes this my favorite crisis was that I was able to achieve the results that come with good planning so that the CEO of the company was enabled to focus on the personal challenges of losing a father and a friend.

When You’re Tapped to be the Company Spokesperson

Let’s say your background and training is that of an engineer, or a sale exec, or a lawyer, or maybe an accountant, but here you are, your company has selected you to be spokesperson on a particular issue. Perhaps that issue is a pressing one and this situation has already reached high levels of intensity going in.

What do you do?

Hopefully, it’s safe to assume that you have the support of the organization from the top and into the communications function. You should expect to receive some level of guidance and coaching from your communications people.

But what, specifically, should you expect from your team and from yourself?

Messaging

The first thing you need to know is what is the company’s messaging on this particular issue. Do you have a set of key message points that were developed by your public relations people on the issue? Were you part of the process to develop and fine tune those messages? And, do you have the proper support information to back up those messages?

Questions and Answers

Along with a key messaging document, you should also have a list of possible questions you may receive on the issue, along with recommended responses that are consistent with the key messages that have been developed.

Coaching and Simulation

If there is time, you should expect to receive coaching and an opportunity to simulate media interviews and other scenarios where you may be required to deliver the company’s story on the issue.

Resources

As with any big matter, no one can reasonably assume that you or any one person would have all of the answers to every question. But going in, you should know who within the organization may have some of those answers.  And you should know what external resources can be accessed to help further tell the full story on the issue at hand.

These are the basics, and they apply in both crisis and non-crisis scenarios. What are your stories about the time you were tapped to be spokesperson. Let us know at @OBrienPR on Twitter.

Even If Your Organization is Not On Social Media, It Could Face a Social Media Crisis

Let’s say your organization doesn’t have a Facebook page or a Twitter presence. You may assume you probably can’t get into trouble on social media.  Such an assumption would be a mistake.  Here is a quick rundown on five ways in which social media could erupt to bite you if you are not prepared:

An employee goes rogue on their own social media account. 

There is a good chance many if not most of your employees are active to some extent on social media. While your organization may have taken great care to take a conservative stance on social media, every staffer may have their own ideas on what is and what is not acceptable online.  A post that attacks the organization, or one that includes names of fellow employees, managers, customers or others that you do business with could escalate in minutes, depending on the situation.

What to do: Make sure you have a solid social media policy in place and communicate it broadly and frequently to staff. While this may prevent some potential crises, there is no guarantee it will prevent all. But in all cases, having a policy in place provides a platform and a starting point for what you can and need to say during those times when the organization has to jump into action to address social media flare-ups among staff members. The policy will likely contain language that can be tapped for internal and external communications, reinforcing the organization’s rationale for corrective actions taken.

A customer slams you on social media and it spreads.

While B2B organizations don’t face this scenario often, it can happen. On the other hand, consumer goods and services companies have found that it’s very common for customers to turn to Twitter with a customer complaint even before contacting the company. How many times have you seen or heard about someone tweeting a complaint to an airline, for example, while standing in line at an airport, prompting the company to have to respond in minutes, if possible?

What to do: If you have a customer service department, make sure systems are in place to coordinate real-time communications with your social media management function. Regardless, your social media managers need to have protocols in place for contacting and coordinating with all of the key people in the organization to respond to small events that may not constitute crises at the moment, but if left unaddressed could escalate into crises.

A negative Glassdoor.com or a Yelp review could gain traction. 

Years ago, to learn how you are perceived among employees, potential employees and customers, you may have had to conduct focus groups and surveys. To be sure, those tools remain as solid as ever in gaining the most accurate assessment of attitudes. But certain sites have emerged allowing your employees, customers and others to submit reviews about your organization. Glassdoor.com lets employees and former employees rate your work environment. Yelp is widely revered among restaurants, retailers and other companies for its influence in painting an either positive or negative picture of your organization in the marketplace.

What to do: One or two negative reviews are nothing to worry about. In fact, I recently read a scientific study that indicated that the majority of people who submit reviews are predisposed to emphasize the negative in their reviews. The same research indicated that people who are satisfied with a product or service are less likely to submit reviews in the first place. This means that the reviews your organization receives may not be an accurate representation of the marketplace at large. At the same time, should one review start to gain traction by spurring additional reviews or social media activity, it’s best not to take it lightly. Depending on the situation, you may need to respond publicly, online, on the forum where the review was posted, and then work one-on-one to address any issues. Should a concerning pattern emerge, it may be time to convene your crisis or issues management team for a more thorough response.

Ubiquitous cameras.

Everyone who has a smart phone has a camera on them, which means if you have 200 employees there’s a good chance you have roughly 200 cameras beyond your control throughout the organization. Add to this the number of customers and others from outside your organization that potentially could post photos having to do with your organization, and the potential for problems is omnipresent.

What to do: Have a policy in place for the use of cameras by employees and in those facilities and locations under your organization’s control.  Like the social media policy, having this policy in place is important to the kind of messaging you would create should a mobile camera be at the center of some future crisis or issues management situation. Chances are, each crisis situation where smart phone video or photographs are at the center of the matter will be unique, so it’s best to prepare to mobilize your crisis communications team when these things do occur.

Your Facebook ad could generate negative comments. 

I helped a client with this situation not too long ago. The company had no Facebook presence, but it did sponsor a Facebook advertising program for recruiting purposes. When each ad was posted according to the criteria that was pre-set, the comments function was enabled so that anyone who saw the ad could post a comment. This caused one person self-described as a “former customer” to complain, and a few others who saw the comments to ask the disgruntled poster to elaborate.  At first, the company could not verify that the person complaining was a customer, let alone whether the claims made by this individual were true or not.

What to do: In this case, the organization was not a consumer-facing company, so they were able to do some internal investigating to identify and reach out to the person who complained on Facebook. They addressed that person’s concerns proactively and achieved a positive outcome. Worth noting, it is possible to disable comments on certain social media ad programs, so if the success of your ad program does not require comments, and you want to avoid this type of problem for your organization, disabling comments for your ad may be an option.

Do you have a story about social media flare-ups? Let us know on Twitter (@OBrienPR) or better yet, send me an email.  I’d love to hear it. 

The Best PR Podcast You May Not Have Heard Yet

Sometimes in the PR business, we just have to admit guilt in a little bit of shameless self-promotion. This is one of those times.

As we wrap up 2018, we’ve made tremendous progress on a number of fronts, the most notable being the launch of the Shaping Opinion podcast back in the first quarter.

We intentionally did not narrow its focus on the business of public relations or as a how-to podcast. For that reason, you can Google the term “PR podcast” or search for PR podcasts on iTunes and you may not find it.

The reality is we thought carefully about the mission of the Shaping Opinion podcast. The focus is on the story, usually a story with appeal to people well beyond the PR industry. Here are some excerpts from actual iTunes reviews of the podcast:

  • “Every episode is a wonderful window into things I’d never even realized I was curious about.”
  • “When it comes to podcasts I’m a bit picky. With (literally) hundreds of thousands to choose from if I subscribe to a show rest assured it’s a cut above the rest. Tim has managed to take seemingly random topics from history, politics, popular culture, science and health and weave them together through engaging guest interviews who are experts in their field. Tim’s questions betray extensive preparation for each interview and the listener walks away with an in-depth understanding of the topic.”
  • “Listened to the one about the opioid epidemic.  Great job interviewing others, and basically very well researched and I actually learned quite a bit. My fav part though is how all of the podcasts are WILDLY different.”

While the Shaping Opinion podcast will always have a communications dimension, it will also likely have historical and cultural dimensions as well. The topics are big topics. The issues are usually big issues. Yet the stories likely will be ones you may not have heard before.  And you will hear those stories from people who’ve dedicated no small portion of their lives to the subject at hand.

Listeners aren’t bombarded with checklists or listicles. No homework. The podcast does not get bogged down in PR tactics and PR industry jargon. In the end, the goal is for you to come away with a deeper understanding of something interesting that you may not have thought of before.

The Shaping Opinion podcast has a lot in store for 2019, and its audience is growing inside and outside of the public relations field. If you haven’t checked it out yet, you can find it on iTunes, Spotify, Google Play, Stitcher, iHeart Radio, TuneIn or wherever you listen to your podcasts.

Whose Truth Is It, Anyway?

I had an interesting interchange with a colleague, Karen Swim, President of Words for Hire in Detroit, on social media recently. The thing that prompted our discussion was her posting of this article from Forbes about a new analytics program called Protagonist which is claimed to help “better manage communications strategies.”

That sounds good, and if it does what it says it does it could be very meaningful, but I have my concerns for one simple reason. Computer programs are only as objective and (ironically) as analytical as the programmers who create them. If the creators have a very specific worldview, that worldview becomes the benchmark against what all other data will be analyzed and judged.

While I have not used the program in question, my point to Karen was that the red flag for me was that the program was described as being “free from bias.”

Karen’s thoughtful reply: “The issue is not in having biases, we all do, but acknowledging them and allowing for differing perspectives and opinions.”

Yes!!!

In recent weeks, I’ve seen countless articles on what were the big stories of 2017 and what were people’s predictions for 2018. I’ve learned not to try to predict, but there are some trends worth watching. One of them will be the continued evolution of technologies that are designed to replace human analytical thinking.

Consider artificial intelligence and machine learning. From self-driving cars to robots that can enter hazardous environments, sparing human lives. These all show great promise.

But before we surrender too much of our thinking to our digital minders, I’d offer this. When we start to dive deep into the development of communications strategies, when we have to identify biases, issues and concerns, in the end, we have to confront our own biases, our own worldviews and factor them into our own analysis of the data that’s before us.

This all starts with the acceptance of the notion that no one has exclusive claim to the truth. A respect for other points of view can be very situational, and very much based on emotion, morals and ethics in ways a software program cannot adequately take into account.

From there we can create context, the kind of context our clients and organizations need to make informed decisions. Not just factually informed decisions based on algorithms and what attitudes seem to be trending online. Rather, the best communications decisions are ones that are informed by offline factors such as emotion, experience, common sense, empathy and an understanding of human nature that all still rely on skilled and experienced professionals to interpret and manage.

A PR Clinic in the Snow: Christmas Lessons at 6th and Grant

I’m not sure when school let out right before Christmas break, but I do remember a few times on the last school day before Christmas I was able to rush home and then with my mom take the trolley to Downtown before my dad finished work.

For me and just about every other kid, Downtown was the place to be around the holidays. There were three major department stores – Gimbel’s, Joseph Horne’s, and Kaufmann’s – and usually depending on which one was closest to your trolley or bus stop, that was your family’s go-to place. Ours was Gimbel’s.

As you approached the store in the dark and the cold, you’d be greeted by those well-lit and colorful Christmas dioramas in the windows. You’d start to feel the warmth even before you spun through those heavy brass revolving doors.

Bright lights, and garland of red and green, gold and silver, blue and purple, all glittering and sparkling everywhere you looked, and shiny new things that my mom said not to even think about wanting. The 11th floor at the top of the escalator was my destination, even long after the reality of Santa Claus had set in. That was where they had the good stuff.

After that, we’d hit the lunch counter at a nearby restaurant which had the best hamburger, chocolate milk and French fries you could want.

But before all of this Christmas sensory overload, we’d stop by the corner of Pittsburgh’s Sixth Avenue and Grant Street, right in front of the William Penn Hotel. That’s where I’d watch my dad work for a few minutes before he’d visit with us. He was a traffic cop who seemed more like the host of a constantly unfolding social event, rather than just someone who pointed cars and trucks in the right direction.

There always seemed to be someone else standing on one of the four corners of the intersection wanting his attention, wanting to talk to him about something. I’d watch him get traffic moving and then make his way over to whomever seemed to have a need.

That mom and her kids across from me wanted him to give them directions. Another man asked my dad if he knew a good place for shoe repair. A college student wanted to know where to get a good fish sandwich. A young man in a Marine uniform asked my dad if the Pittsburgh Police Department would be hiring new officers soon. These were the little things, and they were non-stop.

Sometimes he’d tell me about other things people approached him about. He once told me about a woman who had passed by his corner for years with nothing more than a smile and a pleasant “Hello.” But one day, she stopped to talk. She told him that her adult son had gotten into some trouble and she didn’t know where to turn. He gave her the names of some people he thought could help. Not coincidentally, these, too, were people he had met and gotten to know on this very corner.

Doctors and lawyers, executives and CEOs, bus and delivery drivers. As their routine took them through the intersection of Sixth and Grant, sooner or later many got to know my dad and all were the better for it. He was a visitor’s bureau with a badge, who every now and then had to keep the peace along with direct traffic, and he loved just about every minute of it. Anyone who knew him would tell you that.

At Christmas, people who walked by his corner seemed to have the holiday spirit and the mood was always upbeat.  There is something about seeing your dad do his thing out in the world when you’re a young boy. As I watched my dad in action, he seemed larger than life. I was proud of him.

He was in his element. Almost no one got away from him without a handshake or a pat on the shoulder.

So, what does this all mean to PR?

My dad gave me a lot of good advice over the years, but it was probably his example that taught me the most. This was most predictably evident when I watched him do his job.

To him it wasn’t about directing traffic. It was about people. It was about being a goodwill ambassador. It was about helping. Clearly when I think about it, he understood as much as anyone the value in helping people connect with each other in meaningful ways. He created community.

That’s the life lesson I learned without a word in the falling snow on the corner of Sixth and Grant during the Christmas season.

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving: A Healing Holiday

The following post originally ran on November 20, 2012 on PR, Pure & Simple:

It was just a few years ago that I learned the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today, at least the parts where the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions aren’t playing football, is actually rooted in a decision by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. That’s when the holiday became an annual tradition.

Here’s the story.

Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a uniquely American holiday. Back in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” While not a religious holiday, per se, it had significant spiritual significance at the time, and served as the kickoff to the holiday season that went through Christmas to the New Year.

As our history books tell us, the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims to celebrate their first harvest in their new land in 1621.

However, during the Civil War, the president read a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, which called for a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated the last Thursday in November of 1863. As a result, he decided to make her proposition an annual tradition throughout the country.

The rationale behind the holiday was to start to help create a sense of unity. In his proclamation of the event, President Lincoln pointed out the things for which Americans had to be thankful to God, including “fruitful fields,” the continued peace with foreign nations, and the continued preservation of the union.
Some historians have said that with the nation so divided at the time, as was pointed out by the president in his proclamation, it appeared the intent was to create a vision for a unified nation, living in peace, sharing the same values of God, family and country.

To Mr. Lincoln, the thought of giving thanks would have been an incomplete one if not to join together in appreciation for “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

In that proclamation, Mr. Lincoln touched on many of the issues the country faced in its war between the states, including the effect it was having on families. He extended his particular sympathies to the widows and orphans created by the war.

To add context to this, it’s important to note that one week before the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the president traveled north of Washington, D.C., to deliver his remarks at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg. This was the site of the bloodiest battle of the war and was devastating to both sides. Both armies suffered a total of over 50,000 casualties. As Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks five months into the aftermath of the three-day battle, some of the dead still were not buried.

To read his Gettysburg Address, and then to read his proclamation of the first Thanksgiving holiday, you can get a more complete sense of the mood of the country, and perhaps get a glimpse of Mr. Lincoln’s frame of mind at that time. While these were extremely powerful leadership documents, there is a high degree of introspection and sentimentality contained in both.

I found them both to be worthwhile in my own reflection of what I happen to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving holiday. As I read these words from Mr. Lincoln, however, I realize not much tends to change. I too, am thankful for my faith, family and a wonderful country to call home. And that’s just for starters. Wishing you much for which to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PR will be at the Intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Ethics

The World Economic Forum (WEF),  one year ago, identified the nine most pressing ethical issues we face as artificial intelligence (AI) transitions from science fiction to our everyday reality.

This matters in public relations, because inevitably we will find ourselves at the intersection of AI and its effects on people. We can expect much of the conversation to center on the ethical issues at play.

Here are the nine ethical issues the WEF identified:

  1. Unemployment. What happens at the end of jobs?
  2. Inequality. How do we distribute wealth created by machines?
  3. Humanity. How do machines affect our behavior and interaction?
  4. Artificial Stupidity. How can we guard against mistakes?
  5. Racist Robots. How do we eliminate AI bias?
  6. Security. How do we keep AI safe from adversaries?
  7. Evil Genies. How do we protect against unintended consequences?
  8. Singularity. How do we stay in control of a complex intelligent system?
  9. Robot Rights. How do we define humane treatment of AI?

Every one of these questions is serious, real and provocative. These are issues that will present themselves whether our leaders address them preemptively or not. Anyone who has “public relations” or “communications” in his or her title will be required to explain what it all means.

You may be that person.

For this reason, it may be worth examining how the climate for communications could take shape. Obviously, no effective communication can happen without a solid grasp of the technologies at play. Further, it will require a mastery of ethics at several depths, from basic human ethics and morality, to the ethics of behaviors in business, in government and in communications.

But before we even try to wrap our heads around all of that, we will need a fundamental centeredness that begins with our own individual moral compass. Personally, we need to have a clear idea about right and wrong, and an instinctive sense of pragmatism. Or to put it more simply, I’ll use the words of my late father: “You need to use the good common sense God gave you.”

Common Sense and those Nine Questions

The underlying theme or the premise of each WEF question relies on the belief that we can control all of the variables that will determine the outcome. Since we don’t, and therefore we can’t, the common sense answer to all nine questions above is, “You don’t.”

AI is man-made but once it starts to take on a life of its own, control over its evolution will become much more fragmented and difficult to achieve. Of course, society must do everything it can to influence positive outcomes, but for those of us in charge of communications, the first mistake we can make is to agree with what appears to be the WEF’s premise that a singular group or body is qualified to define what’s right and wrong for everyone else. But perhaps just as importantly, even if there was one, that it could deliver.

“End of Jobs?”

AI visionaries predict that employment as we know it will end. They are probably right in the same way as those who might have predicted an end to transportation jobs when blacksmiths were replaced by automobile mechanics, or when telephone operators were replaced by automatic switches, or when elevator operators were replaced by … buttons.

It is probably true that society will need to brace itself for yet another revolution in the way we work, perhaps on a par with the transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, and then many decades later to an informational one. But “end of jobs” sounds a bit melodramatic.

Our role in public relations will be to assess at every step the impact of AI on the work force and help explain not only how that impact is taking shape, but also where the new opportunities may be as work itself continues to evolve. We’ve done this many times before. It’s one of our strengths and probably the one area where the communications profession is most prepared to step in and pave the way for AI.

Who gets to define “inequality?”

We learned in history class or political science class or economics class about the basic systems for governing and economics. Some are pretty straightforward. Under dictatorships or monarchies, the lines of inequality are pretty clear. You have the few who make all the decisions on “wealth distribution,” and then you have everyone else who are not deemed as “equal” or deserving.

Under communist and socialist regimes over the past 100 years you had what was written on paper, and then you had those theories put into practice, which usually ends up in some form or fashion like what I just described in the previous paragraph.

Because a free and democratic society is founded on the rights individuals possess, there is a key distinction between rights and outcomes. Economically, we have a right to work or start a business, but it’s on us to go out and earn. The system (in the U.S.) is structured to assure us the right to earn, but not the entitlement to receive. Of course, governments have certain entitlement programs, but the economic engines that drive growth, prosperity and feed tax coffers rely on income- and revenue-generation. With this in mind, it is largely assumed that the distribution of wealth is self-determined and based on all of the factors that go into making a living.

For PR pros, the major issues with the question about how to distribute wealth created by machines is to accept the premise that an individual or a small group of individuals should be given the power and authority to decide on how to allocate wealth and to whom. There will most likely be public relations professionals on all sides of these issues.

Machine Impacts on Human Behavior

Perhaps the most common and pressing issue that public relations professionals will face as AI is integrated more deeply into our daily lives will be the impact those machines will have on our own human behavior and interaction.

All you have to do is sit in the food court of any shopping mall and you’ll see the how machines are changing human interaction. Watch a bunch of teens stare at their phones instead of talking to each other, or stroll by the increasing numbers of empty storefronts in the mall thanks to the rising dominance of ecommerce.

At every turn in this evolution, it will be PR’s job to educate, persuade and inform on the full range of issues where new technologies continue to change the way humans interact with each other.

Artificial Stupidity: Guarding against mistakes?

This, we know. AI is only as good as its makers, and its makers are human and therefore imperfect. It’s not hard to imagine a world reliant on self-driving cars, where some of those cars kill people. It’s equally easy to envision an AI-controlled drone every now and then falling from the sky, putting people’s safety at risk. And did I mention invasion-of-privacy issues?

Over the decades, society has learned to accept certain trade-offs with increased automation. Goals are usually to minimize mistakes with the understanding that perfection is not attainable. What makes this issue even more challenging is the scale of power and influence AI has the potential to wield. Grids can be affected. Entire cities and regions. Millions of people can be more readily impacted by a singular event.

For communicators, one major dynamic will change – accountability.

Until now, human accountability has always been the cornerstone of ethical decision-making and behavior. When something goes wrong, we immediately and innately look for the humans in responsibility to address the issue. And to do the right thing, those humans rely on their own survival instincts, from something as basic as wanting to physically survive a crisis, to the more common motivations of fear of being criminally prosecuted, fear of being sued, or fear of being fired from a job.

AI removes all of these emotions and dynamics and puts a disconcerting buffer between responsible humans and decision-making. This presents big challenges for communications professionals, who will still be required to look for accountable parties, people who will be held responsible when machines make bad decisions. PR will have to play a role in sorting that out.

AI and Bias

The WEF points out that Google had some problems of its own with AI and how it was used to predict future criminals. Apparently, Google’s AI showed bias against African Americans.

Before getting into the bias of the technology, it’s worth asking a more fundamental ethics question: Who gave Google the right to predict criminal behavior based on appearances?

At the moment, it’s assumed AI is not our justice system and that we have a right to expect assumptions of innocence until guilt is proven. In other words, we have a highly regulated justice system of checks and balances, which is designed to be slow and deliberate.

So, a reliance on algorithms to predict criminal behavior based on appearances can lead to all sorts of issues that can create or perpetuate AI-driven stereotypes across all demographics in any number of situations.

As a result, it’s quite possible that in the future when AI is involved, one of our most important roles may be to give voice to the concern that an organization may be relying too heavily on value judgements made by machines.

Keeping AI from Adversaries

The WEF is concerned that evil people may see AI as a powerful new weapon in their arsenal. This concern is not only valid but probably as serious as conventional policies to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the bad guys. The problem is, AI may eventually be so ubiquitous that to try to “keep it” from adversaries may not be realistic.

In the PR profession, our role may be to sound the alarm on issues as they relate to policy. This will allow decision-makers to better create policies that favor the good AI can do for the world, while not underestimating the bad it can do in the wrong hands.

What if AI Turns Against Us?

Mary Shelley wrote the iconic Frankenstein story in 1818, 200 years ago, and it’s even more relevant today when we contemplate the power and the risks of AI.  In that story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster that eventually turns against him, its creator. No longer science fiction, today scientists are creating machines that learn and decide and learn again. They control other machines and the many mechanisms that allow society to function.

The WEF cites one of the most classic concerns of science fiction authors: What if the machines turn against us?

Rather than assign nefarious motives, the WEF points to the real possibility that through some sort of glitch or misunderstanding in programming, a machine could misinterpret stimulus, data, an image or the very presence of a human, and make an errant decision causing harm.

As with other scenarios, it may the role of communications professionals to speak up when they see the potential for human risk and how that risk could play out.

What if the Machine Becomes Smarter than Us?

The difference between humans and all other beings on Earth, says the WEF, is our intelligence. So, the ethical question becomes, “What could happen if the machine becomes ‘smarter’ than its creator?”

This question appears to raise the issue of whether technology policy-making in the future will call for a figurative “kill switch” to be built into any AI technology to serve as a means to shut down a system before it can do much damage.

Public relations professionals will play an important role in the debate over how such policies should be crafted and enforced, and eventually implemented.

What if Machines Develop Feelings?

The final WEF question entertains the extreme notion that robots could (should?) have rights not unlike human or animal rights and that machines could deserve “humane treatment.” To give this question serious consideration, we would have to accept the premise that machines are “living” beings with feelings.

At the moment, and with so many other higher priorities when it comes to AI, assigning feelings to machines and then assigning them the same rights as humans may be a bridge too far. It’s probably best to let the next generation of PR pros deal with that.

So, what do you think? What are the most pressing communications issues we could face as AI continues to penetrate our daily lives?

Public Relations Society of America Recognizes Pittsburgh PR Consultant’s Contributions to National PR Field

Pittsburgh, PA, October 12, 2017 – O’Brien Communications, a Pittsburgh public relations consultancy, has announced that the national Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) and its Independent Practitioners Alliance (IPA) have presented Tim O’Brien with its “Indie Award.” The award recognizes outstanding contributions to the nation’s independent practitioner community in the public relations field.

The Indie award was presented at PRSA’s International Conference in Boston on October 9, 2017. In presenting the award, the PRSA cited O’Brien’s role as author of PRSA’s “State of Independence” column that is published in the organization’s PR Tactics monthly that is distributed online and in print to all PRSA members in North America. In addition, he was recognized for his active participation in and contributions to the Solo PR Pro forum, a national community of PR consultants.

He is a veteran professional communicator and an accredited member of PRSA, having served on its Pittsburgh board of directors. He is an alumnus of Duquesne University, and in addition to writing for PRSA, he is a regular speaker before industry and college groups. He is also a monthly columnist for Muck Rack Daily, a national digital media property that serves the country’s journalist and public relations communities. He was featured in the Harvard Business Review Press’s “The Essentials of Corporate Communications and Public Relations,” and he contributed a chapter to PR News’s “Crisis Management Guidebook.”

About O’Brien Communications

In 2017, Expertise .com recognized O’Brien Communications as one of the top 14 PR firms in Pittsburgh. Founded by Tim O’Brien in 2001, Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications builds its client service with a focus on: Corporate Communications & Strategic Planning; Marketing Communications; Public Relations & Media Relations; Content Development & Professional Writing; and Crisis & Issues Management. Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups.