Digital tools, analog thinking – doubt as a contributor to the success of communication management

No sooner have we adjusted to the VUCA corporate environment in the 21st century than we are confronted with even greater complexity. In 2020, U.S. futurologist Jamais Cascio coined the acronym BANI for the future business climate: volatile becomes brittle, uncertain becomes anxious, a previously (merely) complex environment becomes nonlinear, what was ambiguous is now incomprehensible. So, the question arises: what kind of contribution can management functions make on this journey into an increasingly uncertain future, and what do they embody at their core in the face of all the necessary adjustments to meet these new requirements?

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More present, less hype: the future of communication management is now

The current saturation of studies and analyses on the future of communication management in general, and the role of the chief communications officer (CCO) in particular, is undoubtedly a consequence of the fundamental upheavals in public policy, business, and society that we have been experiencing for some time now – upheavals perhaps best summarized by terms such as geopolitical confrontation, hybrid globalization, and social polarization. At the same time, AI-based marketing and communication software appears to offer a wide range of potential applications, which will provide our profession with completely new tools. The chief marketing officer at the consumer health company Haleon recently spoke to the Financial Times about how communication dreams are about to come true. “Right person, right time, right message, right context,” as she put it. “This is a marketer’s dream.”

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Navigating uncharted seas – communications management for a world out of joint

Acting amid crises, wars, and disasters, communicators today may find themselves observing – like Shakespeare’s Prince Hamlet – that “the time is out of joint.” Some of the terms so often heard in public discourse, such as transformation, paradigm shift, or geopolitical tensions, leave no doubt as to that. Concepts and constructs established over decades, like multilateralism and globalization, appear to be up for debate. At the same time, we are seeing a return of the state as a shaper of economic relationships, especially in the context of the efforts to combat climate change. The approach to crisis management during the Covid pandemic has further strengthened this trend. The result? Fifty-one percent of the Germans who were questioned in a representative survey by the online polling agency Civey voiced support for government regulation of prices for electricity, rent, and more. Only 36 percent had faith in the market.

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PR identity crisis because of AI? – The road to augmented communications

If you look more closely, the current debate on the expected implications of AI tools on communications management – which has recently intensified due to the rapid spread of chatbots based on large language models – essentially revolves around the question of what public relations and corporate communications are actually all about. Talk of “revolutions,” as recently put forward by Bernhard Fischer-Appelt, along with the potential for 30 to 40 percent increases in productivity, or “identity crises in PR and communications,” as suggested by Jan Hiesserich from Palantir, centers on the aspect of automated content generation. Points of view oscillate between fears of communication management self-destructing on the path to using AI and the promise of the technology offering greater freedom for human creativity by taking over time-consuming routine tasks.

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The transparency paradox – and what it means for communication management

The debate about striking the right balance between economic progress, lasting prosperity, and social participation has produced a new philosophy for the business world: stakeholder capitalism. The new demands with regard to a company’s performance are creating higher expectations. Today, those expectations are increasingly intensifying and are being voiced not only by customers and interest groups from society at large, but also by exhaustive national and international regulations such as the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive (CSRD) and the resulting European Sustainability Reporting Standards (ESRS).

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We are not parrots – ChatGPT and what it means for communication management

When OpenAI, an American company, unveiled the latest generation of its AI language model back in November 2022, the move touched off a firestorm of discussion that is still going. The Generative Pre-trained Transformer, or GPT, functions as a chatbot, allowing people to engage in dialogue with an AI model. Trained on 500 billion information units from sources such as the Common Crawl web archive and Wikipedia, ChatGPT can respond to questions with “human-like language,” as ChatGPT describes itself. The quality of the answers still swings wildly from brilliant to nonsensical, but the AI learns from each new conversation. In addition, ChatGPT is not yet connected to the information spheres of the Internet, so its knowledge only goes up to 2021. But it is only a matter of time before the bot gains broader data access. Meanwhile, competitors that promise even better performance, such as Jasper Chat, Neuroflash, and YouChat, are waiting in the wings.

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Use it or lose it – saving public opinion with reading and writing

We owe the distinction between cold societies (those geared toward adapting the culture to their environment) and hot ones (those geared toward adapting the environment to their culture) to the French cultural anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The development path embodied in this distinction is one we can translate to other contexts, particularly with an eye to how we are currently experiencing the status of public discourse. When philosophers such as Jürgen Habermas and sociologists like Andreas Reckwitz look to the digitalization of media and likewise point to a crisis in general public life, it is not much of a stretch to imagine that we are currently in a transition to an overheated society, in which we are experiencing the alignment of (at the least) the centuries-old traditions of our culture of communication toward new technological possibilities, such as digital interfaces, algorithm-based formats, and AI-supported content.

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In a dilemma – communication management as a vocation in a new era

References to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity as defining parameters are part of the debate on the future of communication management. Global financial crises, digital disruption, accelerating climate change, the coronavirus pandemic, and emerging stakeholder capitalism are concrete proof of an increasingly opaque environment presenting both opportunities and risks – especially for business. The sociologist Ulrich Beck referred to the transition from a traditional industrial society to a catastrophic society, in which a state of emergency is increasingly the norm.

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At the end of the strength? – Communication management in stakeholder capitalism

For a number of years, business and political leaders have found themselves in a complex situation consisting of opportunities and challenges, brought on by fundamental environmental crises, accelerated technological progress, and the increasing polarization of interests within societies as well as between countries. While this makes the task of communication management within the business and political sphere more challenging, it also offers a major opportunity for our discipline – if we grasp it.

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Are we all influencers now? – Understanding roles in communication management

No, but the growing significance of influencers raises questions about how communication management views its role, which is already somewhat blurred. Public relations as a discipline – and hence the self-image of its protagonists as credible bridge builders between senders and recipients of messages – originated from the logic of scarcity in the mass-media age that comes from the teachings of technology and economics.

However, there is no limitation for the distribution of messages on social media, and every user is both a sender and a recipient. Influencers seize this opportunity to build up a permanent following by offering their audience attractive content and treating them as a community. Authenticity is a key success factor here, especially if influencers are endorsing certain products or giving opinions.

This means that influencers are indeed part of the trust economy that has emerged in modern communication management. Even if they generally portray themselves as laypersons or amateurs to their followers – and thus distance themselves from the economic and political establishment – they must still meet certain quality requirements in the same way as communication managers. However, the latter owe their success first and foremost to their credibility, while influencers usually market their opinions (at least as part of their brand).