HORIZON SCANNING Stephen Davies
The world is in the midst of the digital age and the resulting rate of change is moving quicker than society can keep up. Technology continues to evolve at a blistering pace disrupting businesses, business models and entire industries in its wake.
• How public relations practitioners able to quickly adapt to technological change will benefit from being in the vanguard of new developments
• About Artificial Intelligence, Augmented and Virtual Reality and more
• How upskilling in these areas will lead to success for PR teams
From healthcare to hospitality and from finance to farming no industry is immune to the relentless and transformative way technology is transforming the world.
One industry that has been in a perpetual state of disruption since the advent of the internet is the media.
The way in which information is created, distributed and consumed is in a constant state of flux thanks to new platforms and networks overlaid on the infrastructure of the world wide web and mobile networks.
As an industry that is part of the wider media industry, public relations too has had to adapt to stay relevant.
In fact, PR has changed considerably over the last few years, and while the principles of good communication and reputation management have remained the same, the way in which they are achieved have not.
For PR to thrive in the digital age agility is a necessary quality.
The world in which we communicate, share and consume information has changed fundamentally in the last ten years. The rate of change over the coming years, we can assume, will only continue. The necessity to adapt and change has never been greater.
To make the point, let’s go back to 2006.
Ten years ago the smartphone had yet to be invented and those apps that you depend on each day obviously weren’t around either.
It would be unlikely you had a Facebook account since it was only for college students until the end of the year. Twitter didn’t launch until March and barely anyone used it for the first twelve months.
YouTube was a less than a year old and was considered as a site for grainy cat videos. Instagram, Snapchat, BBC iPlayer, Amazon Kindle, DropBox, Google Chrome and Android were all twinkles in their developers’ eyes.
Over the years these new technologies and channels have spawned new kinds of roles. Social data analyst, community manager, influencer relations, app developer, content specialist and growth hacker were terms unimagined in 2006.
They did, eventually, turn PR into a more technology-driven discipline and those who adopted to the change have reaped the rewards.
We have come a long way since then but innovation is unforgiving and all the signs are pointing to more disruption over the coming years as new emerging technologies move to the forefront.
The PR team that can show agility in the face of it will ultimately be the one that thrives.
The emerging technologies that will impact PR
Rise of the machines: Artificial Intelligence (AI)
The growing field of AI has polarised many of today’s great thinkers and technologists. Some believe that a machine with superintelligence will be a force for good whereas others are concerned that, without regulation, it could cause problems for the human race.
Tech giants such as Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, IBM and Microsoft are all investing heavily in AI so, whatever your stance, it’s likely to increasingly permeate our lives in the coming years.
AI has already made its way into newsrooms writing financial reports, covering sports events and even clickbait articles.
The Associated Press, one of the earliest users of AI journalists, uses it to write quarterly earnings reports for 4,000 companies. Previously they covered only 400. BuzzFeed has created a ‘political bot’ using Facebook’s chatbot messaging system. The LA Times uses a robot to write an article whenever an earthquake in the region occurs.
If AI can make its way into the newsroom, then there is no reason why it can’t make its way into the press office.
The possibility is high of AI robots crafting word-perfect press releases, optimising social media content, responding to journalists via chatbots, monitoring online brand mentions and developing appropriate responses, and potentially a host of other PR-related tasks. All based on ongoing machine learning and data feedback.
New kinds of reality: Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR)
There are two similar emerging technologies with tremendous potential. AR overlays computer generated imagery over an existing, or ‘real’, reality and VR is a computer generated simulation that immerses the user so they feel they’re in it.
The huge success of Pokémon Go has thrust AR into the limelight as scores of the human race run incessantly around streets looking for a Gyrados, Blastoise and their ilk. Snapchat too uses AR to create facial lenses to make you look either sexy or just plain weird.
AR is not just for gaming however and will increasingly make its way into PR related campaigns. Take product launches where an AR overlay may create more interaction with the use of entertaining and informative content. Likewise, AR can provide an additional layer of interaction around press conferences too.
VR is already being trialed in PR related settings and it’s easy to see why. Providing a virtual experience can help brands of all kinds from fashion, tourism, hospitality, sport and everything in between. Its limitations are only restricted by the imagination.
More of the same but different: Social media
From its humble beginnings social media has morphed from a nice-to-have promotional tool into a required business function impacting all levels from HR to customer service to the C-Suite. Any sentiments of it being a passing fad are over.
Social media will play a part in supporting the rise of AI, AR and VR, and will likely serve as the platform on which new services are launched. Already Facebook chatbots and Microsoft’s spectacular AI experiment failure on Twitter are illustrating this.
The future of social media also lies firmly in video. Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has gone on record saying Facebook will be “mostly video” in five years’ time.
The recent launch of Facebook Live and the development of its 360-degree video platform align with this prediction. They will also serve as ways to facilitate the usage of its VR headset, Oculus Rift, which it purchased in 2014 for $2bn (£1.5bn).
Twitter too sees live video as a means to generate more eyeballs and has made it seamlessly easy to post live videos directly from its app. Google owned YouTube has almost a billion viewers generating billions of views each day. Facebook owned Instagram recently launched one minute videos reporting that video ads on the platform are flourishing.
So what does this all mean? Firstly, ongoing learning and upskilling will be required to ensure PR stays relevant in the increasingly technical media landscape. The skills needed (and still often lacking) today may not be as useful in the future.
Some of the smart ones among us will choose to specialise in AI where they will utilise the API services from the likes of Facebook and IBM to create campaign specific AI robots. Expect also some agencies and inhouse teams to form production departments that provide live 360 video, AR and VR among other things as service offerings.
Someone once said, the best way to predict the future is to create it. Time will tell if PR is up for the challenge.