This month, Eurovision exploded back onto our screens in all its campy, zany, extravagant glory. Broadcast from my hometown of Liverpool, millions of people across the globe danced and sang along to some predictably cheesy music – in my eyes, Finland were the clear winners. This celebration of diversity, inclusivity, creativity, and culture was a clear reminder that the human influence is invaluable for businesses – particularly as AI creeps further into our lives.
There’s an overall mix of curiosity around how AI can help companies, fears about it negatively impacting jobs, and pressure to regulate it as it grows more knowledgeable. It can perfectly replicate human voices, churn out content in seconds, and explain advanced astrophysics to a five-year-old. It can’t, however, replicate or replace the human touch, particularly when it comes to reputation shaping.
AI isn’t going anywhere. There are around 5,855 tools that have the potential to be used in PR currently available online, and that number will only continue to rise. But a reputation is curated through the business’ relationship with the public, and relationships are the foundation of the human experience. By working solely off data, AI tools lack the emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, and interpersonal skills that are so imperative in PR. If a business experiences a reputational setback, wants to improve media relations, or is looking for a creative new way to boost visibility, there is a need for soft skills that only us humans can bring to the table.
Eurovision is a perfect example of how the human influence shapes reputation. The longest-running annual international televised music competition, its reputation reflects its core value of uniting people and nations by showcasing musical diversity and cultural nuances. It is powered by human creativity and an understanding of culture, attracting audiences of over 180 million people across the world who share a wonderfully wacky and meaningful experience. Love it or loathe it, Eurovision’s reputation has an undeniably and overwhelmingly positive impact on visibility, cultural influence, and tourism.
When considering how AI can discern a brand’s reputation, the tools may be able to use their vast amounts of knowledge to gauge popularity, identify cultural differences, and calculate the positive financial impact Eurovision brings, but this information is gathered and collated through human input. Because AI lacks the aforementioned soft skills, its inability to think critically or creatively generates concerns surrounding ethics.
Firstly, if the human input is not neutral then the AI-based decisions are susceptible to bias or inaccuracies. This is especially concerning if a company is experiencing a reputational crisis, and neutrality and nuance are needed. One well-known example of this is the bubbling undercurrent of political tensions that surround Eurovision each year. Despite these, the event remains fiercely politically neutral, and makes every effort to bar highly politicised performances and promote peaceful relations, in order to avoid reputational damage.
Secondly, AI is inherently inauthentic, meaning that any creative ideas it suggests stem from human creativity. This also means that AI-generated content or ideas are more likely to result in plagiarism accusations, a serious reputational setback.
Thirdly, there are the ever-present fears around increased surveillance. Once an AI tool is fed a piece of information, it can never be retrieved and wiped from the database. If sensitive information is inputted, the tool has no understanding that it should not be outputted – and if that occurs, it makes for navigating some seriously tricky waters.
So, is AI the future of PR? It can certainly augment, but there’s no doubt that the human influence will continue to drive the industry forward. And with the countdown on until the next Eurovision in Sweden, ask yourself – would this be nearly as much fun with a glittery, AI powered, humanoid robot on the stage? Personally, I’d prefer to see another rendition of the classic Ukrainian entry circa 2007, “Dancing Lasha tumbai”. The contestants may be dressed like robots, but they are hilariously and undeniably human.
With so much innovation coming from today’s tech firms, the number of major announcements they’re making on a regular basis has skyrocketed. Nowadays, companies aren’t relying solely on the media to get their news out into the world. They can use their owned channels and upload an announcement to their website and social feeds in a matter of minutes. They’re usually drawing attention to the wonderful new things the company is doing. Every so often though, they upload something very different.
I’m referring here mainly to announcements that reveal cultural changes, which have become something of a normality in recent years. Coinbase banned discussions around politics and social matters last year, for example, which was followed by Basecamp banning those topics on its company-wide Basecamp account and even taking it a step further by stopping 360 employee performance reviews and disbanding all of its committees. Both companies’ announcements raised eyebrows and concerns across the industry.
The crux of the matter
What’s fascinating about ‘no more politics’ announcements is the manner in which the message is delivered. As someone with their ear to the ground on all things reputation, I found the Basecamp statement was especially interesting. This was a bold, confrontational announcement that explained a number of changes in the company, some of which have proven unpopular externally and may be disliked internally too. The tone was almost daring the reader to challenge them. It was the higher-ups saying “this is what we’re doing, deal with it”.
Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with the decision to ban political discussion in the workplace, there are lessons to be learnt here. Let’s not forget that this wasn’t a reaction to a crisis, it wasn’t a story uncovered by an investigative journalist, there haven’t been any laws broken – the company opted to share private information willingly.
They identified that these are contentious matters and sought to disclose the decisions to remove any risk of a potential white blower sharing the information externally anyway. There’s nothing wrong with getting out in front of a story and it can often be the correct strategy in certain circumstances. In this scenario though, three things really niggled me.
Firstly, Basecamp’s announcement didn’t just reveal the banning of political talk on its company channel. It included the revelation that it was disbanding all committees. It also revealed the decision to no longer use 360 employee performance reviews and, instead, managers and team leaders would be solely responsible for performance reviews. In this one announcement, they released three decisions that arguably could result in question marks over the health of Basecamp’s culture and conditions employees face. Would it have been better to reveal such decisions one by one over a longer time period instead of dumping all three at once? Did the committee and 360 reviews decision even need communicating?
Secondly, the importance of reading the room and getting the tone right cannot be overstated. Every business operates differently in one way or another, sure. And, for some, maybe committees really don’t work. Whatever the activity a business pursues or stops though, explaining the reasoning and decision for doing so clearly and in a way that doesn’t provoke is critical. For example, explaining the removal of 360 feedback because they’re “not very useful” isn’t sufficient. After all, any seasoned professional knows that reviews such as this, like almost any activity, is only effective if implemented correctly. At the moment there is growing pressure to improve business culture and look after employees more. The messaging for an announcement that in any way touches on employee performance should reflect that.
Thirdly, business decisions are made with the best intentions most of the time. Sometimes, they’re made on gut feeling and with minimal data and insight. Political discussion, the effectiveness of committees, and the usefulness of 360 reviews aren’t exactly quantifiable. Therefore, a decision on them is based on the hope that doing something different will work out better. If you’re communicating a change around matters such as these, there’s an element of humility needed, and ego has to be left at the door. No company knows categorically whether banning political discussion will be better, so communicate your hope that it will be and your desire that employees’ work lives will be improved; don’t simply position something as bad and must be banned.
Do these decisions really matter?
In a word – yes. They should matter, anyway. Now, don’t get me wrong, political discussion can be challenging, draining, and can drive a wedge between even the closest of colleagues – so I understand why an employer might want to minimise this.
It would be interesting to know exactly how this decision was reached though. Did this come from the workforce as a request and, if so, did a majority of employees approve it? Or was it a dictatorial decision, forced upon employees? One suspects it’s the latter.
Furthermore, who determines what is and is not ‘political’ and what falls under the umbrella term ‘social matters’? My take is that topics such as diversity and climate change would be off limits, given their political and social nature, and that is to the detriment of all parties. Without discourse on these topics, employees have no power in holding their employers to account for failures or lack of action on important global and societal issues. Boardrooms become echo chambers for the white elite, because they’re not tuning in to what the workforce cares about.
What’s the alternative?
As the CEO and leader of Firefly, my view is that there are viable alternatives to the ‘no political discourse’ approach. Businesses should trust their employees to know when to speak up about what’s important to them politically and to know when it’s appropriate. They should listen to employees’ views and how that affects the organisation and consider what the business could or should be doing in response.
What it really comes down to is that employers should trust that the employees will know when to get on with the work and deliver what’s needed to clients and customers. Set clear work objectives, help people stay focused, and ultimately treat people like the adults they are. Yes, it’s more effort than a ban, but businesses of today can’t simply restrict the things that require more effort.
An open culture will reflect well on company reputation. Just look at the extremes to which many tech companies go to so that, on one hand, their employees feel heard, valued, and respected, and on the other hand, they can be seen as good companies to work for and invest in. The likes of Microsoft, IBM, and many others, wouldn’t be driving diversity and sustainability transformation to the degree they are if it weren’t for sound business and reputation reasons.
As for an alternative for 360 employee performance reviews, I would ask any company that’s not found 360 reviews successful whether they simply need a different approach to how they undertake them, instead of discarding them altogether. Maybe they could benefit from changing the tools they use for the reviews, or train people to improve how they complete reviews, or even bring in professionals to complete them so it’s more objective. It seems to me that the senior management at Basecamp might benefit hugely from a good, constructive, and positive 360 experience, because more self-awareness builds stronger relationships and stronger relations aids a more positive reputation. More impactful 360s start at the top and, if it is done well, it will reverberate a positive change for the better down through the organisation.
I’m looking forward to seeing how other well-known tech companies communicate changes such as this in future – whether they follow the ‘drop all the changes in a single update’ approach, keep quiet and wait for information on updates to be leaked, or drip feed the information gradually over time. When it comes to banning political discussion in the workplace, the industry has been going in the opposite direction in recent years, but it’s possible we’re about to witness a change. It would be a major shame if bans on conversation around politics and social matters become more widely adopted, at least in my view. What’s yours?
Everyone reacts to hard truths in their own way.
After a helluva year we’re all a bit Zoomed out. The sound of our own voices, the sight of our own reflection staring back from whatever comms platform we use is quite draining and distracting. Sometimes I barely recognise myself looking back at me. Noom, here I come.
A reflected truth can also be very different to what we might expect. Would you recognise your organisation if you heard how people described it, or criticised it? Do you think they’d describe your organisation accurately? So, how might they describe it.
Some of us thrive in these situations, as it gives us a reason and a way to improve and better ourselves. The criticism spurs some on to a greater future. However, many people find the brutal truth intensely painful and can’t find anything constructive in the criticism or conversation. This is even wired down to slight differences in personalities. For example, a CEO with the Myers-Briggs INFJ personality type would be more sensitive to criticism about himself or his business than someone with an INTJ personality type, who often handle (and dish out) criticism well.
I wonder about the personality type of the ex-CEO of eBay who said to ‘take down’ the writers of a newsletter who had criticised his company. To follow what they thought was an instruction, other ex-eBay execs allegedly prepared a three-phase harassment campaign involving cockroaches, a funeral wreath and bloody pig masks. Revenge indeed from criticism taken badly. What personality type were they?
It takes real courage to stop and take a long, hard look at your reflection to hear the criticism and accept the real truth about your reputation. Whether this is a personal exploration or an organisational venture, the uncomfortable or even ugly truth will make us better in the long run. What do your employees think? What do your customers and prospects think? What does the media, analysts, or the market think? Perception is the reality. Perception is your reputation.
So, what can you do to get that perception back on track?
Identifying the issues
To achieve a rhapsody of reputational bliss you need to identify the most important challenges to tackle, and to get a correction campaign moving and reshaping. No one can say, ‘We have no reputational challenges’. That arrogant comment alone is an indication you will have many. There is always something to work on and ways improve.
Often when we are passionate about our organisations or our reputations, it’s quite natural to overlook the disconnect between perception versus reality. Meanwhile, the disconnect can end up as a small explosion of ugly truths; perhaps from someone leaving, a customer leaving you, a lack of growth and regret for lost opportunities. or rebellion from a neglected audience. You need to ask questions and accept the answers as the perception. What you don’t see are the lost opportunities that never came your way. How do you measure the depth of a void?
During the past 12 months, when communications has been one of the only ways of maintaining our link to our colleagues, our customers, our audiences and stakeholders, what misunderstandings have developed, what changes haven’t been acknowledged and communicated, what are the consequences of the significant and subtle cultural changes that mean nothing will be quite as it ever was?
Perhaps, with a national lockdown and a physical separation from the workplace, now is a perfect time to iron out some reputational creases – it is easier to see the issues when you are a little distanced from them.
Any reputational exploration should never be a one-person job, it should be shared and co-owned by those who are most likely to be impacted by reputational upswings or downswings. Reputation affects the whole organisation.
Rounded views: Evoking honesty from colleagues
When it comes to evaluating an organisation’s reputation, just getting the opinions of a few trusted members of the senior leadership team or the executive board isn’t going to cut it. To see real and impactful changes, you must make sure that the conversations are being had across the entire organisation and externally too. Possibly senior execs can be a little disconnected from the on-the-ground dealings to understand where some real issues might lie.
Getting an honest opinion from colleagues who may feel afraid to speak up is going to be challenging and a lack of honest engagement on the subject will hinder reputational improvement. In cases such as these, give people the option to be anonymous. In addition to getting colleagues to speak more honestly, it is imperative to get feedback from as many people in the organisation as possible. Each person has a unique view, and their opinions can help to identify issues throughout. This kind of feedback may be difficult to hear, but part of the power comes from getting up front and personal with the truth.
Bringing in external help
Once the initial exploration has been completed, it might be difficult to know where to start. Even after getting honest feedback from your colleagues, having an outsider work with you on your reputation can be much more effective than working on it exclusively internally.
Bringing in external reputation consultants or a business coach could help you to understand what to do next. An outsider can deliver the brutal truth to whoever needs to know, and with much experience, can help you find ways to measure, maintain, improve and protect your reputation.
Outsiders are more likely to notice issues, discover your innate strengths and help to get truly honest feedback from all those who matter and those who care about your organisation. Looking from all angles is key and having that external perspective can really help with the finetuning to ensure you are getting the reputation you want and deserve, the rhapsody of reputation bliss. Sounds exquisite doesn’t it?
Every word that is chosen, every conversation that is had, every decision that you make impacts what your company is best known for. A positive reputation adds concrete value and often, people are more forgiving of companies with good reputations.
It all begins by taking the brave step to look in the mirror, see the truth, accept that things need to change, and to start the change now.
Countless people have said it, but this year really was anything but predictable. Despite the sudden change, the year wasn’t all doom and gloom. Mental health was discussed more, social justice movements really accelerated, carbon emissions dropped at the height of lockdown, Animal Crossing had its time in the limelight, and most of us learnt how to make bread and other baked goods.
With 2020 almost behind us, we’ve been having some great discussions here at Firefly about what we think the year ahead holds, so here are six of the main trends we’ve come up with that we think will have a huge impact on the world of comms in 2021.
Stronger communication of social and political movements
This year, we have seen social justice efforts dialled up drastically. Hugely important topics such as climate change, animal rights, and wellbeing were brought to the awareness of the masses more so than ever before this year. However, the most powerful of which was undoubtedly the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement this year, where many stood in solidarity to fight against racial oppression and reflected on the prejudices within their own societies. The impactful global movement not only brought these issues to the front of everyone’s minds, but it also prompted action from a number of organisations and effective communication became key.
As we approach 2021, it is likely that topics much like these will continue to surface, causing a shift in both corporate and consumer behaviour. Responding in the wrong way, or not responding at all, can have a negative knock-on effect on the reputation of individuals and/or companies, so being prepared for communicating on issues will be a key consideration as we enter the new year.
Move over media relations
In the coming year, the face of PR will change, even more so than it has already. Companies, and particularly in-house PR teams, are focusing less and less on traditional media coverage. Of course, the media remains an important audience to communicate to, but comms specialists must start to look at the reputation all around them, not just in the media. Finding the right means of communication will become crucial to helping build or improve the reputation of organisations or individuals. With tactics such as SEO, employer branding, and other reputation-building tactics becoming more and more impactful, it’s clear that media relations alone simply won’t cut it anymore. As an industry, we must start to adapt, develop, and innovate in 2021, pushing communication to its full potential.
Tim believes that “The best campaigns nowadays hit different audiences, in different ways, and at different times, and the truth is that media relations on its own doesn’t usually deliver that as effectively as a wider comms campaign.”
Cancel culture continues on
Prior to this year, we knew cancel culture was a thing, but with the power of social media and the increase of social justice movements, both the extent and frequency has increased a fair bit. Most infamously this year was the fall of the once beloved writer, J.K. Rowling who voiced opinions that many deemed as anti-transgender. Despite numerous attempts to repair her reputation by demonstrating support and clarification on her opinions, J.K.’s cancel saga continues.
So far, the comms industry has had some trouble with understanding and getting to grips with cancel culture. And this is only expected to get harder in the coming year. Our words, especially on social media, can make a huge impact. Now that those involved in cancel culture know that it works, it’s likely that this will only increase just how much they partake in the public shaming of brands. Going forward, we must start to take cancel culture seriously.
For anyone who’s still new to cancel culture or wants to learn a bit more, we wrote a blog about it recently. You can read it here.
The battle against misinformation continues
We wrote a blog last year about deepfakes being a big threat to the media, and the efforts of those involved in spreading misinformation have really ramped up since. The pandemic has caused a huge amount of misinformation to be spread as many questioned the virus, the causes and eventually the vaccine. In retaliation, the World Health Organisation coined the phrase “infodemic” to explain this plethora of information and its rapid spread. Social media giants even began to crack down on misinformation by flagging posts that may have inaccuracies or be deceptive – hopefully, this will be just the start of the likes of Facebook and Twitter preventing the spread of fake news.
In the next year, it’s likely we will begin to see some real innovation in this area and a shift in behaviour, but it won’t be easy. Comms will have a tricky year ahead trying to deliver accurate, reliable, and credible information, and if the culture of misinformation continues to grow and become more mainstream, this will cause even more challenges!
Empathy, care, and continued commitment
After being subject to nationwide and local lockdowns, where many of us were unable to see our closest friends and families, we all needed a little boost. Everyone has already begun to pay close attention to their own mental wellbeing and the wellbeing of those around them. Even the government has begun to comment on this too. With so much focus on this, it is almost definitely something that will impact the year ahead. For comms professionals, communicating with care is key and care should be top of the agenda for leaders too.
Christian thinks that “The Covid-19 vaccine will take a long time to change the world stage, so people will be working remotely for some time yet. This means that leaders must continue being inspiring, motivating their staff, and making difficult decisions for some time yet. It’s time to dig deep and communicate clearly, powerfully and responsibly.”
Planning for uncertain times
As we know, this year hasn’t been predictable at all, and actually, it’s uncertain just how much we can know about the next year. Despite the uncertainty, we can plan for the year ahead by ensuring there is fluidity interwoven into our plans. Pre-Covid, it was easy enough for us to plan around big events, or key moments in the calendar for the following year. Due to the vaccine being distributed, we can almost start planning in this way again, but we must ensure we have a back-up plan if these milestone moments in the year are postponed or cancelled.
According to Charlotte, “A full, detailed yearly plan has not been ‘a thing’ for a while, things change far too fast to look that far ahead. There is still uncertainty around the corner, so comms planning must be fluid and we must give ourselves room to flex, to either face new challenges or take advantage of new opportunities.”
There are, of course, countless other trends that are likely to make an impact in the year ahead, but these are the six we really think you, as a comms professional, would benefit from keeping a close eye on. This year has been an interesting one to say the least, but we’ve all learnt a lot, and despite the uncertainty, some great things have happened. From us at Firefly, we hope you have a wonderful festive break, enjoy time with loved ones, and recharge those batteries for a brilliant new year ahead. And of course, hopefully the newfound baking skills many of us picked up in lockdown can come in handy for whipping up some festive treats while playing Michael Bublé on repeat!
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