Why the future of PR is not technology

The theme of this year’s Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA) conference was communication innovation. However, the most consistent takeaway from the presentations was the future of public relations is not about technology.

You read that correctly, it’s not about technology. It’s about being human. Let us explain by covering several recurring themes from the two days…



Opening the conference was Global Chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, Christopher Graves, who explored the relationship between neuroscience, behavioural science and communications.

“We are feeling machines that think… the emotional side of the brain will always win out. It’s experience that changes minds, not facts,” is how Graves explains human beings.

According to Graves, people perceive being told they are wrong as an attack on their identity, and so it’s unsurprising that science tells us presenting facts and logical arguments does not result in persuasion. His top advice for communicators:

Use affirmation and empathy – Letting people know you understand their perspective, even when it is contradictory, goes a long way to help get them on side. Think about using phrases such as “I know that you…” and “I understand you’re concerned about…”

Don’t argue based on facts – According to Graves, and research including that of Charles Lord, it doesn’t work.

Tell a story, even one that’s entirely fictional – The theory of narrative transportation suggests that when someone is immersed in a story they are more likely to align with the views presented, even when they’re aware it’s fiction.

Create implied social norms – Heard of the Asch Experiment? Essentially, it proves that someone would prefer to be wrong than be an outsider. Creating the perception that lots of others are doing or believe something, is a powerful persuasion tool.

Tell an individual’s perspective – Share an individual’s story, instead of talking in terms of statistics or groups. It will allow people to empathise and share an experience. Take this advertisement for Google as an example. While the ad brief could have likely been to show the interactivity of Google’s many applications, the result is a personalised story which tugs on the heartstrings.

Always refer to the present – Humans generally care about what will affect them right now, so it’s important to speak about ‘today’s’ consequences of an issue. This was also highlighted by CEO of the Climate Council, Amanda McKenzie, highlighting the importance of this technique when trying to make people care about climate change.

While data can certainly help paint a picture, Chief Executive of Insights from global media intelligence company Isentia, Khali Sakkas, pleaded for us communicators to “tell beautiful stories with data.” The average Isentia report has around six different versions tailored to different stakeholders, because while numbers may resonate with say the finance team, visuals or words may appeal to others.

Can computers communicate using empathy, underpin facts with emotion or identify with an individual? Not today and likely, not in the near future.



Gone are the days of segmenting or describing publics according to demographics. For Graves, audiences should be targeted based on their “world view” – communitarian or individualist, hierarchical or egalitarian – as per the grid below.

“People agree with others, they see them as an expert, when their views on the world are aligned. This makes the choice of messenger very powerful. A message you want an audience to believe needs to come from the ‘in group’ because competing opinions from an outsider are expected and so are instinctively seen as wrong.”

This was echoed in the following talk from ABC’s Head of Strategy for the Digital Network, Louise O’Donnell.

She used the example of Prince Charles and Ozzy Osbourne – they are the same age, gender and orientation, fit in the same income bracket, were born and live in the same location, have the same number of children and are both self-proclaimed dog lovers. While a computer might group them in the same demographic, humans understand they are very different characters and will appeal to different people.


O’Donnell discussed ABC’s journey to digital transformation, with one of the main challenges being how to tell meaningful stories through ‘snack-sized’ content while adhering to a journalist’s role of presenting the whole picture.

It’s too simple to align with the techno-determinist view that the type and way we create content has changed because of advances in technology, according to O’Donnell. Rather, content has changed because our media consumption habits have changed. People, not smartphones, are the ones demanding a 24 hour news cycle.

O’Donnell explained the way reporters tell stories has shifted from looking at the channel first, to firstly telling the story, then considering the audience and lastly focusing on the channel. Otherwise, a TV producer for example, will see digital as an afterthought – given that ABC is now a cross-channel network, this way of creating content is no longer best practice.

Channels – including the many social media platforms – are a means to an end goal, not the goal itself.

Director of the business and career planning firm Roxburgh Group, Anthony Lowe, discussed the future of public relations and highlighted that while our role may shift away from media relations, there will always be a need for communicators to build and protect reputations through change management, customer journey communications, executive communications and crisis preparedness and management. Most interesting was his response to an audience question: “Why don’t I see digital or social media up on your slide?” – “Because social media is a channel through which we achieve those things, not what we achieve.”

We couldn’t have explained it better.

Crisis management agency Socom’s Managing Director, David Hawkins presented a similar viewpoint in his talk on channels vs approach: “The approach of the communications must always come first. Honesty, empathy, transparency should be considered before channel, tone, frequency.”

Hawkins shared an example of the Neighbourhood Justice Centre located in the City of Yarra, which has relatively high crime compared to other parts of Melbourne and a high proportion of people speaking English as a second language.

The Centre held an all-female town hall with interpreters for all who needed them to explain to women what was happening in their community and to provide a platform for them to be active contributors. Many women said it was the first time their voice had been heard.

While a hashtag campaign may have seemed sexier, by thinking about the approach first, the Centre was able to address the real needs of its community. Coupled with many other initiatives, crime and reoffending rates have dramatically decreased in the area.



We all know online algorithms now personalise what we see on Google, Netflix, Facebook and other platforms to suit the type of content we are known to engage with. However, do we ever stop to consider the ethical implications?

Day two of the conference opened with the wonderful Jane Caro who spoke about the many implications of society’s social media revolution, with one of them being the increasing need for our scepticism.

As the internet knows exactly what aligns with our view of the world and feeds this content to us every day, Caro urged us to go against the human instinct of believing the news we agree with and instead to always question its source.

She referred to the example of the many false news reports on Hilary Clinton which were filtered through to the Facebook pages of Americans and generated major engagement leading up to the US election.

The ABC’s Louise O’Donnell similarly highlighted that because of this, there will always be a need for editors with human judgement.



“Corporations still don’t know how to talk to human beings online. Brave businesses give the role of social media to the bright, witty and authentic employee, not to someone solely because they’re a junior.” – Jane Caro

Brands can no longer get away with sounding like a brand online. Caro believes the worst that can happen when brands are authentic is they make a mistake and, if they respond genuinely, can actually garner more support by showing the world they can deal with adversity.

People want to hear from someone they relate to, making the need for authentic brand advocates even greater.

According to Group Managing Director, Consumer of Ogilvy Public Relations, Richard Brett, this notion is exemplified in the rise of the YouTube celebrity – people who are flawed, and are loved for it.

Brett also stated the search for stock photos of dads changing nappies and female business executives has risen drastically. It may be time for Shutterstock to remove all those unrealistic photos of thin women happily eating salads…


There will always be a place for humans in the communications industry – the success of the public relations profession will depend on how we use technology to tell our stories.