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Communications & public relations


The UK government’s use of algorithms to grade student exam results resulted in students taking to the streets and generated swathes of negative media coverage. Many grades were seen as unfair, even arbitrary. Others argue the algorithms and grades were a reflection of a broken educational system.

The government would do well to understand the root causes of the problem and make substantive changes in order to stop it happening again. It also needs to regain the confidence and trust of students, parents, teachers, and the general public.

Whilst the government appears reluctant to tackle some of the deeper challenges facing education, it has wisely scrapped the use of algorithms for next year’s exams.

And now the UK’s Office for Statistics Regulation has issued its analysis of what went wrong, highlighting the need for government and public bodies to build public confidence when using statistical models.

Unsurprisingly, transparency and openness feature prominently in the OSR’s recommendations. Specifically, exam regulator Ofqual and the government are praised for regular, high quality communication with schools and parents but criticised for poor transparency on the model’s limitations, risks and appeal process.

Ofqual is no outlier. Much talked about as an ethical principle and prerogative, AI and algorithmic transparency remains elusive and, if research by Cap Gemini is accurate, has been getting worse.

The UK exam grade meltdown shows that good communication (aka openness) must go hand in hand with meaningful transparency if confidence and trust in algorithmic systems are to be attained. The one is redundant without the other. And they must be consistent.


  • First published in AIAAIC Alert, the fortnightly newsletter examining AI, algorithmic and automation trust and transparency
  • Watch/listen to the Ada Lovelace Institute’s webinar on the OSR review

The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in an orgy of news stories, commentary and analysis in which the terms crisis, disaster and emergency have been used almost interchangeably. What is the correct terminology?

According to Muckrack’s Trends research tool, the terms crisis and emergency dominate media headlines and body copy.

These three terms are closely related and overlap significantly, yet each has its own distinct meaning and implications.

  • A crisis is an issue or event that invites unwanted external scrutiny, seriously impacts an organisation’s ability to do business, and jeopardises its reputation. There are many types of crises (and non-crises); research shows most crises stem from management weaknesses.
  • An emergency is an unplanned event such as fire, flood, evacuation, violent crime or fatality that affects an organisation locally and requires immediate action. The impact of an emergency is generally limited to the initial event itself.
  • A disaster is a severe situation that affects broader society and which has the potential to interrupt business operations on a longer-term basis. Examples include an earthquake, a tornado, a major flood or power outage, or a serious health pandemic.

Despite the coronavirus technically classifying as a disaster, it is no surprise that journalists and commentators prefer the term crisis given it is media shorthand for pretty much anything that goes or can go wrong.

Blurred boundaries

Yet the boundaries between crisis, emergency and disaster are less straightforward than they first appear.

The coronavirus may be a disaster for health organisations and inter-governmental organisations, but it is also resulting in serious crises for companies shut down by government decree or mishandling how they manage their response.

And a really serious crisis resulting in significant environmental, social, economic or geo-political damage – think BP Deepwater Horizon – is often termed a disaster (‘a crisis with a bad ending’), or even a catastrophe.

Communicators beware

Crisis teams and communicators, however, should take real care with their terminology. Planning and responding to serious negative events requires precision with what words mean and imply.

A health pandemic necessitates a different response to a workplace fatality or data privacy breach. Different teams are often involved, and each scenario demands different policies, protocols and messages. Activating the wrong plan can be disastrous.

While COVID-19 is growing exponentially, it is no emergency, no matter what the media says. But it is a crisis for some organisations and a disaster for others.

And for a few, it spells potential catastrophe.

Egypt Air Public Relations

It sounds good in principle. A sign in Cairo airport directs passengers to Egypt Air Public Relations. In practice, the desk turns out to be manned by a customer service team. 

The team is friendly, polite and helpful – a credit to the airline. It constitutes good public relations, even if it is not PR as we think of it today.

It begs two questions: What is Public Relations? And is the term fit for purpose?

From publicity to connecting dots

Clearly, PR has moved on since its early days of B.T. Barnum’s publicity stunts. Today’s digitised and accountable landscape means PR is about listening, understanding, outreach, engagement, measurement and evaluation.

It is about advising leadership as well as manning the product and reputational coalface. It is about cooperation and collaboration, joined-up thinking and connecting dots.

Yet the PR industry continues to suffer from a poor name and image. It is seen to lack real bite and C-suite credibility and is tarnished by its association – merited or otherwise – with ‘spin’ and smears.

My own background could be said to be in PR yet, as an observant reviewer points out, I do not use the term Public Relations in my book Managing Online Reputation.

He is correct: I deliberately avoid it, and use the word Communications instead.

Why?

Most importantly, I want to reflect the fact that ‘PR’ people don’t just puff products and salvage broken reputations but provide internal communications, leadership communications, stakeholder communications, corporate communications, corporate marketing, influencer communications, digital and social media communications, and a host of other forms of communications.

I also aim to persuade my readers that the principles and practices of online reputation management – a notoriously shady ‘industry’ – must be approached strategically, appropriately and ethically to be effective.

This, I figure, would be more likely achieved by viewing online reputation through a Communications rather than a PR or digital marketing prism.

Opportunity to own the communications high ground

I am not alone. Most organisations have renamed their Public Relations units as Corporate Communications or simply Communications teams. PR agencies and industry associations such as the PRCA (formerly the Public Relations Consultants Association and now the Public Relations and Communications Association) have followed suit in whole or in part.

Yet the term Public Relations stubbornly persists – in the industry, in business, in the media, and amongst the general public.

With competition hotting up as marketing agencies, management consultants and others encroach on PR industry turf, there are compelling reasons to drop the term Public Relations entirely and replace it with Communications or variants thereof.

Such a move would be brave.

The earned media dimension of PR may lose its pointed edge. And the term ‘communications’ is open-ended, meaning many things to many people.

It would also require real ambition.

Ad agencies have been busy repositioning themselves as marketing agencies in order to reflect their broader capabilities, and to give themselves the flexibility to move into new areas.

This leaves space for the PR industry to occupy the Communications high ground and everything it entails.

A window now exists for PR to own the term Communications, and to rename itself in its own new image.

It should move fast, and aggressively.

Since the start of the year a rumour has been swirling that Facebook has been using a then-and-now facial recognition photo-sharing challenge to collect data about users and improve its AI algorithms. The social network denies it started or is involved with the challenge. 

That people suspect Facebook of being involved, and that the rumour went viral, is indicative of the suspicion with which the company is held since its flaccid approach to privacy became widespread public knowledge.

Multiple data privacy violations

These suspicions are not new. There was the row over Facebook’s Beacon user-tracking service in 2007, concerns about facial recognition, a bungled psychological experiment into the moods of its users, and run-ins with the US FTU, ACLU and privacy commissioners in multiple jursidictions over many years.

According to Google, there has been considerable public interest in privacy (mostly as a proxy for internet and/or data privacy) for many years.

Google: Data Privacy News Trends


Facebook had plenty of time to tackle the problem and prepare a meaningful response. The Guardian’s initial story in December 2015 about the covert harvesting of user data by Cambridge Analytica did not ignite until whistle-blower Christopher Wylie lifted the lid on Cambridge Analytica twenty-six months later.

Yet they did little to address the core of the privacy issue, Mark Zuckerberg disappeared as soon as the story ran, and Facebook’s value dropped USD 119 billion in a single day. Zuckerberg hardly helped matters by refusing to appear before the UK DCMS Enquiry into Disinformation and ‘Fake News’.

How did Facebook fail to anticipate a major privacy crisis when the writing had been on the wall for so long? Were its leaders truly ignorant and out of touch, or simply failed to act substantively on the many warning signs? Why did they behave the way they did? Was Facebook’s experience isolated, or consistent with other reputational meltdowns? 

Reputation risk management

These are the kinds of questions posed by lawyer Anthony Fitzsimmons and insurance expert Derek Atkins in their book Rethinking Reputational Risk, in which they get to practical grips with the notoriously knotty, slippery topic of reputation risk management.

Rethinking Reputational Risk

Drawing on analysis of recent high profile crises such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon spill, Barclays’ LIBOR rigging, Tesco’s false accounting, and the VW diesel emissions scandal, the authors argue that the problem lies in the complexity of many modern businesses, the emergence of multiple online ‘unseen systems’, fast-changing stakeholder behaviours, inadequate listening, issues management and crisis preparedness, and an unwillingness to get to the root problem of problems and failures, chiefly due to over-confidence, complacency and hubris.

All this sounds familiar. But the book comes into its own when it addresses the failure of ‘classical’ risk management and the three/four line of defence model, which is regarded as overly rigid and ill-suited to handling the many and varied behavioural risks, from weak culture and values and inappropriate incentive schemes, to the blurring of personal and professional lives and the character and personality traits of senior leaders.

The authors rightly argue that reputation risk is first and foremost a leadership responsibility, and too often it is at Board level that things fall down. Board failures were involved in 50% of the 42 crises studied.

Why?

Because Boards are essentially self-selecting, and overly reliant on people with financial and operational experience, as opposed to the forensic, analytical, behavioural and digital skills that are required in today’s globalised, networked and inherently volatile economies. There is much in this.

Since concerns about Facebook’s approach to privacy first started emerging several years before its murky dealings with Cambridge Analytica came to light, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg have admitted that they should have taken user privacy far more seriously.

The important question on why they didn’t heed the warning signals earlier appears to have a single plausible answer: user privacy was regarded as a price worth paying for growth, and they would make the most of it while the sun shone and regulators, politicians, customers and the general public had more important fish to fry.

Mark Zuckerberg may insist he is personally responsible for Facebook’s privacy lapses, but Facebook’s board is also responsible and must prove itself equal to the task of fixing the holes properly, and holding its CEO to account. Its members would do well to read Fitzsimmons and Atkins’ excellent book.

Meantime, Facebook must shoulder part of the blame for the many rumours about it – be they accurate, misinformed, or plain false.


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