Strategies & Tactics

Don’t Look Now, but the Future Is Here

December 3, 2018


Making forecasts about the future — of anything — is tricky business.

There is an organization just down the block from where I work at City Hall in Palo Alto, Calif., that spends all of its time doing just that. It’s called the Institute for the Future (IFTF) and its team of researchers and staff spend their days looking at trends and developing forecasts for the future.

Just going to their offices offers a glimpse of what’s to come with a BEAM robot (if you saw the episode of “The Big Bang Theory” with Sheldon controlling his robot self, it’s like that) whizzing around the office adorned with large visual murals of forecast reports. The IFTF does a trend report every year and also dives deeper into areas including technology, healthcare and education, among others.

In their report called “When Everything is Media,” the IFTF describes a future of “ambient communications” where immersive media, faster network speeds and the Internet of Things will mean a constant stream of data and information is generated. This goes well beyond smartphones and TVs to include human bodies and other objects. 

As Rod Falcon, program director of IFTF’s future technologies program says, “We are moving into a world in which every interaction can be captured, stored, displayed and mediated by digital communications — a world in which everything is media.”

How will this impact communications? Let’s look at three of the IFTF’s predictions: 

• Everything will move. This means bots and other lifelike forms will be regularly integrated into advertising, marketing and communications through animation. This will require a whole new way of thinking about visuals for communicators where 2D now needs to be 3D, multimedia and interactive.

• Everything is an “experience.” Think augmented reality and virtual spaces that allow us to go beyond flat visuals and everyday experiences. Communicators will need to understand and get up to speed on immersible technologies, as audiences demand more and different ways to have experiences.

• Everything is searchable. Machine learning is automating tagging people, photos, videos, etc. The future means machines that can tag real-world things, making the whole universe searchable. 

Reshaping the work environment

The IFTF has identified some key drivers of change they predict will reshape the landscape of work for the future.

• Extreme longevity: People are living longer. By 2050, 20 percent of the population will be over age 65, and people are living and working well into later years. Companies will have to rethink career paths, offer more flexibility and be creative to retain and attract employees from across the age spectrum. 

For communicators, this means adaption to new skills and technologies for older workers and incorporating still relevant legacy skills for younger employees. It may mean a shift internally about how to communicate to employees who could span four decades or more in age range. It could also mean communications and public relations become second, third or even fourth careers as more people enter the fields through nontraditional paths.   

• Rise of smart machines: Man and machine will face a relationship shift as repetitive tasks become even more automated, and smart machines are integrated into offices, homes and everywhere else. Some tasks humans currently do will be replaced by machines, but this could free us up to do other things. 

• Computational world: Sensors, massive amounts of data and everything we come into contact with generates information. Communicators and PR professionals will need to get even more comfortable with data, using it to visualize and tell stories.

At the Knight News Lab at Northwestern University, several professors have started a company called Narrative Science that creates stories from data using natural language. Their product called Quill transforms financial spreadsheet data and creates easy-to-understand narratives, looks at Google Analytics and translates it into narratives about social media traffic and page views, and takes raw data from Twitter and turns it into a personalized report with recommendations about what hashtags to use. 

Narrative Science proposes to help communicators use data to know whether their message is getting out, where website and social traffic is coming from, and how to translate all of this into actionable and digestible information.

The production of content, use of tools to transform data into written or visual narratives and the multimedia, immersive use of technologies will fundamentally change how PR professionals interact with the media. Consider the days of media pitches with flat, text-based press releases officially over.

• New media ecology: As technologies for multimedia and video production, digital animation, augmented reality, gaming and media editing become more sophisticated, “we are literally developing a new vernacular, a new language for communication,” according to the IFTF. 

Preparing for what’s ahead

In response to these disruptions, how will communications and PR professionals need to adapt to be ready?  Here are six ways to consider:

  1. Become a nerd. Embrace data, numbers, analytics and explore, read and experiment with tools to help you translate all of this into visual stories.
  2. Think like a futurist. Develop skills and ways to think about the future, read up on the latest disruptions, and take advantage of courses and seminars offered on how to become a futurist.
  3. Be curious about the world. Broaden your reading and learning horizons, dive into areas outside your comfort zone, talk to experts in these fields, be open to new ways of doing everything.
  4. Experiment with technology. Try out new technologies and tools, think mobile and beyond, learn what’s available for free and don’t be afraid to experiment and fail.
  5. Break the mold. Think beyond the traditional organizational structures that often silo public relations, considering how new disruptions could be deployed across your organization. Try using a visualization tool to create narratives for your annual earnings reports, financial reporting or budgets.
  6. Practice writing. Content is king, and we are in the midst of a complete transformation about how it is created. But words still matter and good writing will always be a critical skill.

In many ways, the future is now. Change in so many areas is happening so rapidly that our vision of the future seems to become reality much more quickly. What once seemed imaginable only in the distant future — thinking machines, driverless cars, service automations — are already here or on the horizon. 

Our ability as communications strategists and PR professionals to adapt quickly, see beyond today and immerse ourselves in new technologies that are fundamentally changing how we communicate is the key to remaining relevant.

Claudia Keith

Claudia Keith serves as the chief communications officer for the City of Palo Alto, Calif., and directs the city’s overall communications strategy, social media and website, media relations, issues management and efforts to enhance the city’s global reputation. 


Theodore Williams Daigle says:

Fascinating! Thanks for the insight.

Dec. 9, 2018

Janet R. Cannata, APR says:

Great article. Thanks for sharing this information.

Dec. 12, 2018

Melody Rowland says:

Excellent points! Thanks for sharing!

Dec. 28, 2018

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