The Future of Public Relations Is Strategy, Empathy and Creativity

April 13, 2018
Sheri De Carlo

For some of us life-long learners who like to be kept on our toes, the best thing about the communications industry is it’s ever-changing – there’s never a dull moment. This is inspiring leaders to elevate the practice though strategy, and with access to more data than ever before, it is this data when joined with strategic thinking and empathy that is setting extraordinary public relations practitioners in a class of their own. Canadian Public Relations Society (CPRS), along with guests from McMaster University’s Master of Communications Management (MCM) program, discussed emerging trends, best practices, and valuable insights to thrive in this rapidly shifting world of marketing and public relations at Elevate PR 2 Conference on April 5, 2018.

Information is everywhere. Today, the average household creates enough data to fill 65 iPhones per year. In 2020, this will grow to 318 iPhones. “Data is an emerging literacy. Decision-making is being driven by data, communicators need to understand data to be effective decision-makers,” says Alex Sévigny, PhD, APR, Director, Master of Communications Management at McMaster and Syracuse Universities. “Digital data can be transformed into storytelling through images, visualizations and dynamic tools. People who grew up around screens, they get data. Digital data can be transformed into storytelling through visualization and dynamic tools. Marshall McLuhan said the medium is the message, but we also have data and media which we use to extend our bodies.”

“I had no idea I was so stressed out, but then I started finding ways of getting blue bars, activities and people gave me blue bars . I started finding ways to get blue bars – this watch literally changed my life,” says Alex. He explains he recently purchased a watch that is meant to manage levels of stress in the body. “Pulling that vibe into the way we tell stories is integral in communications. Data and smart devices are transforming employees’ lives.”

Data science leads to data-driven decision-making, rather than the use of simple intuition. “The world needs to become more data centric – we generate enormous amounts of data, but don’t use it very often or even throw it away,” says Sévigny. Data engineers find innovative and powerful ways to capture, collate and condense massive volumes of data. Data scientists derive valuable and actionable insights from that data and put human behaviour in context to enable better strategic decision-making.

“Always continue to reinvent yourself – continue to learn,” says Ivana Di Millo, Director of Communications at City of Mississauga. “Renew your relationship with your IT team. IT owns the platform, together we own the model. It’s vital that communications owns the content and governance – continue to partner with IT to define roles,” says Di Millo. “The future of the organization is the growth of the people within. Communicate often and respectfully, face-to-face, emails, town halls, small meetings and client stakeholder sessions.Digital is a foundation piece. Life in a digital world means robo communications actually create content and disperse it, the call centre we operate has voice search and SEO tools that cater to searches in 311 in the Citizen Contact Centre. Augmented reality is used to enhance experiential communications.”

“AI and data science are already impacting our role as communicators and how we tell our stories. For example, many headlines in national newspapers are now prepared by computers, including at the New York Times, and the Washington Post where layouts are done by computer,” says Sevigny. “Data, and the ability to extract useful knowledge from data are key strategic assets. But you need the right data. You need the right data science talent. So what is AI? Soft AI is the simulation of elements of human cognition to enable a software program or robot to operate without human supervision. Hard AI is the attempt to recreate human behaviour in a computer.”

Walmart made a data-driven decision using what the company calls predictive technology when Hurricane Frances was threatening to hit Florida’s coast in 2004. Backed by data that Walmart had stored, the company aimed to predict what was going to happen instead of waiting for it to happen. This resulted in the determination of what do people buy before and after a hurricane, which was useful in predicting unusual local demand for products and providing stores with identified stock which included beer for pre-hurricane and pop-tarts for post- hurricane.

Target used date-science to predictably determine if a woman is pregnant. Birth records are public; who is pregnant is not. The thinking was “As soon as they buy diapers from us, they will buy everything from us.” Technology and privacy collided when family members found out from Target that their spouse or daughter was pregnant. There are ethical implications of AI, as it is changing the way we perceive our human nature. It requires many rules and laws that will determine choices in difficult situations. AI is replacing humans in circumstances where humans may be more appropriate —for example, “cases of people finding out they were pregnant or their partner was pregnant from Target.”
“Effective CEOs and senior leaders must be good communicators and increasingly across a variety of formats and audiences,” says CEO and President of Hamilton Health Sciences, Rob MacIsaac. “Communications skills are increasingly sought after. This reflects an increasing sophistication of corporate communications including multi-platform, real-time, and brand-aligned activities. This importance for a trusted advisor in the field is growing.”

Rob’s top 10 list on how to be a highly valued senior practitioner:
1. Know the business2. Expand your skill set3. Strategy4. It is a political world5. Keep calm and diffuse a crisis6. Mindfulness7. Know your CEO culture8. Build relationships in all directions9. Bring solutions, not problems10. Be a great writer

“In the past PR has been seen as the enemy. I believe working together is fruitful for both sides,” says Andrew Lundy, Vice President, Digital at The Canadian Press. It is important to point out that 10,000 journalism jobs have been lost in Canada since 2008. “Less news staff means relationships matter more, if you have a story to get out, it’s harder, it’s a really fragmented landscape,” says Lundy. “News releases as rich experiences with imagery, data, and video should be an option. When you get a rich news release it can break through the noise. It is rich media that is connecting with what the audience is expecting, not a wall of text anymore.”

In the ever-changing world of communications, what sets strategic communicators apart is the ability to be empathetic. This is particularly important when dealing with media, that are short on resources and time, and providing timely and rich information, from credible and trustworthy sources. “It doesn’t get you off the hook if someone simply has a PhD after their name,” says Lundy. Surprising for some, this also extends to strategy, the ability to be understanding of diverse stakeholders and internal and external audiences. Some people are stating that this means they need to hire sociologists or anthropologists (one of the conference presenters said he won’t hire PR people anymore – seriously?), but this is a misunderstanding as people who study mass communications often study sociology and anthropology in their undergraduate courses. The need to understand often drives people into the field of communications. This means truly understanding how and why people behave — audience, audience, audience.

“Strategy is the ability to be empathetic. Understand your stakeholders at a deep level. It’s a thought process – think strategically,” says Mark John Stewart, an instructor in strategy and marketing management with the McMaster-Syracuse Master of Communications Management program. “Command and control is over. It’s about keeping mutual benefits in mind.”

Public relations, when done right, communicates with all of the ‘publics’. Now more than ever it is vital to have communicators in leadership positions that have social awareness and strong ethical compasses. It is our responsibility to provide the public with honest and accurate information while holding ourselves to a higher standard of morals and ethics. You’re too kind or too honest are not something communicators ought to be hearing these days. In fact, quite the opposite are needed. This is an age where it is absolutely essential to build and maintain trust with the public – when strategic, empathetic, and creative communicators can work with data to drive story-telling and ethical decision making – strategy, empathy, and creativity – the PR trifecta!