The Critical Role of People in an Ideas Economy

One hundred years ago, the first class in public relations was taught at New York University by Ed Bernays, the so-called “father of public relations” and nephew of the famed psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud.

This year, I’ll begin my tenth year teaching communications at NYU with one simple sentence: “Communications is a behavioral science.”

We don’t have any notes to prove it, but I suspect that Bernays—with a nod to Uncle Sigmund—may have started off his class with a similar comment. Understanding human behavior and what makes people tick is an essential skill of the communications and marketing professional, I tell them. Some, who may have thought they signed up for a class about publicity and social media influencers may get a little nervous, but nobody gets up to leave.

One of the reasons they might stay is because I tell them we’ll also cover “fun” things like the rise of Artificial Intelligence. Recently, there’s been a lot of speculation that emerging AI-driven platforms would not only transform marketing and communications; they’d also cause jobs in the profession to disappear. While it’s true that some jobs already have been lost—especially in journalism—it’s unlikely that will be the long-term result. These new platforms simply need us just as much as we need them.

But that doesn’t mean that communications leaders are sleeping any easier. Many CCOs and CMOs are trying to figure out what their policies for platforms like ChatGPT should be. Some have gone so far as banning their use entirely.

Though there might be valid business reasons to steer clear of the new unknown, I’m reminded of the great Yogi Berra quote, “It’s déjà vu all over again.” The last time there was a technology-driven paradigm shift like this was in the mid-to-late 1990s when the first web browsers appeared, and the dawn of the Internet was shining on the doorsteps of communications professionals around the world.

At that time, the agency I worked at had only one computer with access to the Internet. After business hours, we’d crowd into the one “online office” to have fun and see what would turn up after we typed in a few prompts into a search bar, much like how we all behaved when ChatGPT was released. We’re curious beings by nature; we want to see what AI has to say about, well, everything. Then, we want to push it to new limits and implement it in our day-to-day work, but the boundaries are unclear. Will intellectual property rights be violated? Is the content correct? By using AI, am I taking the easy way out?

So, now that we’re hooked and interested, what happens next? Here are three predictions:

  • We’ll communicate more than ever before, and “fact-checking” will become a real job again.
  • We’ll uncover new ways to engage with stakeholders and forge more meaningful relationships (think of Facebook and LinkedIn on steroids).
  • Communications and marketing teams will be spending a lot more time with their technology counterparts and maybe a new role will develop in the C-suite, like a Chief Digital Engagement Officer.

Make no mistake: Many leaders are still leaning in when it comes to leveraging platforms like AI. Organizations are also taking “safer” first steps by utilizing AI to reduce obvious operational costs or replace mundane tasks without replacing heads or hearts.

Still, grander opportunities for enhanced stakeholder engagement are right around the corner.

When the World Wide Web was first emerging, Bill Gates said, “Content is king.” Those words may ring even truer today. No matter what business you’re in, your currency revolves around what might be called an “ideas economy.”

Professional services firms, who have long thrived on thought leadership, have known this for years, but now it’s true across the board, from the biggest corporate entity to the hottest consumer brand. Stakeholders want to know your story. And, yes, they still want to know what you stand for—even if they may not always agree with you. They want to engage with you, and there’s nothing more human than that.

So, we’re back in my classroom learning about why public relations at its essence is a behavioral science—always has been and always will. New technologies won’t change everything; they’ll just change the rules a bit. The onus will fall upon us bright humans to push generative AI—or whatever technology comes next—to new limits, and ultimately as we uncover new value, we will achieve better outcomes for ourselves and for the clients we serve.

By Ken Kerrigan

This piece was originally published by O’Dwyer’s PR Magazine on August 14, 2023.

Photo by Miguel Á. Padriñán via Pexels