A newspaper that reads "AI IS HERE"
Image generated with assistance from DALL-E.

A communications reformation moment

Our industry must reflect the realities of the market or risk obsolescence.

In 1395, Johannes Gutenberg invented movable type and the printing press in Mainz, Germany. 

The printing press created the first era of mass communication, primarily devoted to printing religious texts, but which also led to the rapid democratization of literacy across Europe. By the early 16th century, with widespread literacy on the rise, a schism within the Catholic church led to the Protestant Reformation in 1517. This movement was empowered by disseminating pamphlets and documents questioning the status quo of religion, politics, government, and other institutions. This Reformation signaled the end of the Middle Ages and, ultimately, the dawning of the Renaissance, an era of enlightenment and invention.

Communications innovations have occurred repeatedly since the dawning of the printing press, accelerating throughout the 20th century. The newspaper, telegraph, telephone, recorded media, radio, tv, web 1.0, the smartphone, web 2.0., and now web 3.0. 

Twenty years ago, we did not have Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, social media managers, or YouTube stars. We made incremental changes to our operations to manage new channels and platforms, which were the beneficiaries of these changes as they assembled enormous market share and power. Now AI is changing everything — again.

Today's media landscape has been upended by significant developments, including fragmented social platforms, influencers, misinformation, and now generative AI.  But while the nature of communications has radically changed over recent years, the structure of communications organizations has not. 

A New Agenda

As early as 2018, Weber Shandwick began studying what we felt was a looming crisis: The fundamental dismantling of our capacity to make sense of events in society. As our subsequent research concluded, all is not normal. And that abnormality is not solely due to the global effects of coronavirus, culture wars driving societal polarization and the decline of trusted institutions This loss of coherence is also the result of technology accelerating faster than human’s ability to keep up.

As generative AI is fully deployed across media, education, health, and political ecosystems, we must set a new agenda to stay in sync with an empowered, autonomous, AI-informed public. This new agenda should incorporate the latest concepts in data science, open-source intelligence, technology adoption, content distribution, and organizational readiness.

Our industry remains built for a reality that no longer exists. Communicators still operate in silos, while communications in the wild have never been more networked. We work hierarchically, while platforms proliferate into forums, apps, communities, games, and intelligent networks. We address our stakeholders as distinct groups, while they operate as individuals that defy categorization.

The disconnect is evident when looking at standard PR operating procedures and supporting technology. Media monitoring, press releases, and social media management tools, that may have been sufficient in the past, no longer match the task at hand or achieve the desired results. 

If companies want to deliver effective messaging to build their reputations, they must adopt a more fluid organizational structure capable of responding to the competing demands of their stakeholders in real-time. If companies want to defend against attacks on their narrative and avoid landing in the crossfire of culture wars, they need to invest in more proactive, predictive analytics to prepare them for the future.   

Attempting to overcome these challenges by training existing staff to use new tools to do their old jobs won’t be productive. Real change requires a radical rethink of organizational structure, necessary data, community tech, conversational computing, and immersive experiences.  A complete reconceptualization of the communications function is the only strategy for real success in today's shifting environment.

Doing so will be a significant strategic move for those who invest in it, a competitive weapon for those who operate within it, and an endless source of value for those who tap into it.

Chris Deri is chief corporate affairs officer and president, C-Suite Advisory, a Weber Shandwickeads Weber Shandwick’s global corporate affairs group, comprised of hundreds of professionals across corporate positioning, financial communications, and crisis and issues management. He oversees its growing business of advising various C-suite leaders and functions at the intersection of organizational strategy, societal engagement, and public positioning. Deri is a member of the USC Center for PR board of advisers.

Chris Perry is chairman of Weber Shandwick Futures. He is responsible for the firm’s media lab, a unit that blends technology, cultural research, and new service development. The lab helps prepare leaders to respond to cultural changes and communicate in complex environments. With 30 years at the forefront of media design, Perry works with Fortune 500 companies to implement cutting-edge intelligence and creative campaigns aimed at reducing risks and stimulating growth. Perry’s insights and contributions are recognized in leading business and strategy publications, including Fortune, The New York Times, The Washington Post, and Strategy + Business.