PRCA SEA Future Leader Award Entry: Laura Naland, The Hoffman Agency

The annual PRCA SEA Future Leader award for Insight saw PR and communications practitioners aged 25 and under enter essays of up to 1,000 words, responding to the following brief: In the world of digital disruption and a highly diverse Asia Pacific region, what role does Public Relations & Communications play in building responsible, ethical businesses?’ Below is one of the shortlisted essays.

Digital disruption is rife, affecting organisations across all industries and markets. And with good reason – the benefits of digital disruption are wide-ranging. From automating manual processes, increasing efficiency and output, to combing through big data sets and deriving customer insights for improved offerings, executives are identifying the potential digital disruption has in improving growth prospects. According to the Forbes Insights/ Treasure Data survey, 83% of executives who see their organisation as market disruptors report increased revenue over the past three fiscal years, compared with 54% of those considered non- disruptive or partially disruptive enterprises.

We live in the age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution – an era defined by frontier technological breakthroughs such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), robotics, and the Internet of Things (IoT) amongst others.

However, while frontier technologies offer a multitude of opportunities, the pursuit of innovation may result in ethical challenges. Take for example the autonomous car conundrum – if an autonomous car finds itself in a situation where it faces two choices: driving over and crashing into a pedestrian or crashing the car and potentially killing its passengers, what should the right course of action be? Beyond autonomous cars, other pertinent issues such as the impact of automation on jobs or AI biases also come into play. In this sense, Asia is a particularly interesting region to analyse.

A melting pot of different cultures, religions, and ethnicities, and with varying levels of digital maturity, it stands to reason that complexities would arise. Simply employing technologies does not guarantee success, and there exists certain risks unique to Asia if we don’t approach implementation with caution.

Consider how digital disruption affects each community differently – less developed Asian economies are at greater risk of seeing more jobs eliminated by automation. In comparison, wealthier countries have larger knowledge worker sectors that can be augmented by AI; and have the resources to reskill workers.

It is scenarios like these where Public Relations (PR) can perform a key role in serving as the guardrails of ethics to encourage businesses to be responsible even as they pursue the bottom line.

As societies gear up for a world of automation, we see top technology brands reassuring consumers that their jobs will not be lost and merely transformed. PR plays a vital role here as it helps shape public perception. At the end of the day, businesses want to make money – and public perception can have a significant impact on business, as seen in cases such as United Airlines suffering a near $1 billion loss in value after a passenger was violently dragged off an overbooked flight. As consultants, PR can act as a checkpoint for companies to ensure they carefully consider their ethics and social responsibilities in the communities they operate in.

Beyond a company’s external image, another way that brands can leverage PR and build responsible and ethical businesses is through internal communications which shapes corporate culture. Internal communications is about engaging with employees and ensuring a shared understanding of a company’s vision, values and goals. It is able to establish an authoritative voice that can facilitate discussions, debunk rumours and encourage employee- buy in. Internal communications can be an important tool to strengthen an organisation’s culture, and if a company’s internal culture and values are ethical, these underlying values can guide the organisation even as it transforms digitally to ensure all ventures are responsibly- taken.

However, it is important to note that PR can only fix the problem when companies ask them to. PR is indispensable in storytelling and shaping narratives – but it cannot act alone. It is part of a larger ecosystem – within companies, the business heads make the final decision; while externally, PR needs the support of media and journalists to run stories.

Nevertheless, PR is powerful as a consultant – while it typically only intervenes once engaged, it can advise companies to prioritise certain messages and activities to improve perceptions. For example, we know that facial recognition technology has grown tremendously, and is now being utilised for a variety of purposes. What started out as a convenient way to verify one’s identity – such as in the case of unlocking devices or checking into hotels – is now being leveraged for surveillance and even as a regulatory tool in China where residents who dispose of trash properly can get points on the social credit system. PR can help companies developing or implementing the technology consider a transparent message around how the data collected is being used, and ask the tough questions around the technology’s applications. This ensures the company carefully reviews its ethics and responsibilities, and addresses any fears or distrust among the community.

Finally, while the landscape around us is being disrupted, we should also consider the disruption of PR itself. PR has conventionally been associated with media relations, but has evolved to encompass much more. Coinciding with changing consumer habits, apart from traditional news outlets, we now have social channels and different types of advertising media. And to ensure messages are consistent and unified across the board, PR will be indispensable as the core function behind every form of communication. PR practitioners function as storytellers, enabling businesses to tell unique stories that can resonate with consumers’ pain and passion points.

As we power ahead with the Fourth Industrial Revolution, governments in Asia are already stepping up to lead the world in the development of ethics and governance – China revealed a three-step road map to lead in AI by 2030, South Korea is the first country to implement a nationwide IoT network, and Singapore last year created a high-level council to advise the government on legal and ethical issues related to the continued adoption of AI.

The increased government intervention is a sharp reminder to businesses to be more conscious about ethics, and PR can help shape each organisation’s identity to create a strong call-to-action for all. Alongside governments and leading technology brands, PR will be an integral component of Asia’s foray into frontier technologies.