Paul Holmes 27 Mar 2023 // 7:50AM GMT
“The pace of change has never been faster than it is today. And it will never be this slow again.”
I have used that line at a number of public events over the past four or five years, talking about the technological and social changes roiling business, society, the media and, of course, the communications business. Typically, I have presented the news — and it has been received — with excitement and optimism. Because as an industry we tend to celebrate and admire “disruption.”
Understandably. Our PRovokeEMEA Summit, which took place last week in Frankfurt, began with a panel that discussed all the ways in which our profession has benefited from the accelerated disruption of the past five years: the new emphasis on ESG, the pandemic, the corporate response to Black Lives Matter, new ideas about corporate purpose, the “great resignation,” even the Russian assault on Ukraine. All of these have elevated the role of corporate communicators inside corporations.
The second panel of the day continued the theme. Edelman’s EMEA chief strategy officer Jay Gallagher told attendees: “There has never been a more difficult environment for business to navigate… Climate change will affect everything. There is technological transformation, from AI to material science, every industry is going to change.”
His colleague Sybille Dinzer, planning director for Edelman in Germany, then made what for me was one of the most critical comments of the morning: “Transformation is a human challenge, because you need to take people on this journey with you. You can’t force change on people and do it against their will.”
The point resonated, because it seems obvious that, in many respects, the changes of the past few years — technological and social — have, in fact, been forced on people. Certainly, that is what it feels like to huge swathes of the population.
The next panel, 'Governing Complexity in Time of Uncertainty,' sponsored by SEC Newgate, expanded on Dinzer’s point. With Gregor Wills, head of PR and communications at Allianz X, the digital investments arm of leading global insurer and asset manager, Allianz, telling the audience: “I don’t think this world is any more uncertain than it was 1000 years ago, for a human being. It was always uncertain. But I do think it is definitely more complex. And I think a lot of people perceive that things are getting worse, things are getting more uncertain.
“It gets down to this point: we have never, ever been better off as a society. Lowest levels of poverty, lowest levels of infant mortality, greatest increase in general health and well-being. So why do we have this perception, all of us, that things are getting worse?”
That rhetorical question was answered, in part at least, by my colleague Maja Pawinska Sims, who talked about her own teenage children and their perception that they were “born into chaos… there’s recession, the planet’s on fire, there’s war everywhere” and the fact that they are bombarded with so much information about that chaos.
And, of course, misinformation, which was the topic of our final panel of the day, which examined 'The Disinformation War,' and spent a lot of time discussing the vast amounts of disinformation coming out of Russia and elsewhere and focused on how the communications industry can do a better job of combating that information.
Shayoni Lynn, founder and CEO of Lynn, a PR agency that includes an “anti-disinformation unit” to help clients address the issue, told the Summit: “We’ve done work with Ukraine, of course, but our portfolio is wider. We look at health, we look at climate, we look at wider issues of democracy. What we are finding is that PR practitioners are waking up to the threat, they are understanding the impact it can have on an organization’s reputation, and on its revenue.
“But disinformation as an industry is very organized, it’s monetized, and it’s very sophisticated. It’s sophisticated in its ability to create content that resonates and it’s sophisticated in its understanding of human vulnerability, in its radicalization of individuals, and the polarization of our society.”
At which point, I started to think about disinformation not as a supply problem (who benefits from bombarding Western societies with lies about vaccine safety and Black Lives Matter and the war in Ukraine) but rather as a demand problem (why are so many citizens so eager to accept and embrace those lies).
And it became apparent that the day’s agenda was not one of disparate panels tackling several of the major issues facing our profession. Rather it was a coherent narrative: the social and technological disruption that excites us is in reality creating uncertainty and a sense of chaos in millions of ordinary people who do not feel that they are on this “journey” of their own free will — and as those people strive to make sense of a rapidly changing, complex world, they are more likely to fall prey to increasingly bizarre and paranoid ideas that help them make sense of the transformative forces that are acting upon them.
Science and technology has been advancing rapidly in recent years, and the signs that not everybody is pleased with this progress have been apparent for some time. The 2020 Edelman Trust Barometer found that 61% of people around the world say the pace of technological change is too fast. Similar numbers worry that technology will make it impossible to know if what people are seeing or hearing is real (66 %) and that government does not understand emerging technologies enough to regulate them effectively (61%).
The recent furor over ChatGPT and increasingly sophisticated artificial intelligence is unlikely to bring those numbers down. Nor is the spectacle of the United States Congress showcasing the depth of its technological ignorance during hearings on the future of TikTok.
At the same time, of course, social change has been moving at a rapid pace too. It is somewhat jarring to remember that until 11 years ago, no United States president had ever spoken in favor of same-sex marriage. So while some of us consider the increased acceptance of trans people to be a welcome development, long overdue, there are many for whom this development is both shocking and somehow threatening. And of course, there is no shortage of cynical politicians eager to take advantage of their fears.
It is time then to consider that we — as communicators for businesses and governments and non-profits alike — have failed in our obligation to help people make sense of the technological and social changes of the past few decades. As a result, people are both rejecting traditional sources of information and authority and embracing increasingly wild conspiracy theories.
Think about the Covid conspiracy theory that started spreading in the early days of the pandemic: 5G caused the coronavirus, and Bill Gates and George Soros had developed a “Covid test” that would implant microchips into people’s brains via their nostrils. This was a grand unified theory that brought together elements of technophobia (5G and microchips), coronavirus skepticism, mistrust of authority figures (Gates and Soros), and the belief that the “globalists” are responsible for everything bad in the world.
It is time to ask whether the fight against disinformation — particularly as it focused on individual (albeit vitally important) issues such as vaccine hesitancy and the war in Ukraine — is too focused on symptoms and insufficiently focused on root causes.
The lesson I drew from our Summit in Frankfurt was this: professional communicators need to balance their excitement when it comes to disruption with understanding and empathy for those who feel as if their world — the world they grew up with and the world they knew for decades — is spinning out of control.
We have the expertise. We know how to do change management work in organizations so that everyone feels like they are on the journey together. We need to apply that knowledge to bigger issues and the wider world, to help people deal with transformative technologies, social transformation, and complex change.