Lessons from the Future: Listen Up!
WE Communications Blog: CEO Melissa Waggener Zorkin
Last week, I got out of the rain for a minute and headed to sunny Los Angeles, where I’d been invited to join a panel on ethics in public relations at the 28th Annual Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium on Public Relations at USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. I shared the stage with some brilliant, amazing people — Paul Holmes of the Holmes Report; Robert Gibbs, CCO of McDonalds; Oscar Suris, the EVP of corporate communications at Wells Fargo; and Dr. Safiya Noble, assistant professor at USC Annenberg and author of the new book “Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism” — and I’m so pleased to have had the opportunity to sit alongside them, listen to them and learn from them. But (and I’m sure my co-panelists would agree with this) the most brilliant and amazing people I heard from last week weren’t on that panel with me; they were the students in the audience.
Facebook, Young Communicators and the Future of Ethical Technology
Like many of you, I spent a lot of time watching Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony before the Senate last week. And like many of you — especially those of you who work in tech or tech-adjacent businesses like mine — I was frustrated by many senators’ inability to understand the issues they were supposed to be talking about. As they blathered on about their “Facebook address[es],” talked about sending emails via WhatsApp, and asked confused questions about the internet’s “pipes,” I realized I was watching a generation gap take shape on my TV screen.
According to LegiStorm, the average age of a U.S. senator is 62 (and Vox reported that the median age of the chairs and ranking members of the subcommittees sponsoring the Facebook hearing was nearly 80!), but the average age of a Senate staffer is just 32. And so I wondered: Why not listen to the people who actually use the tools we’re talking about, who have grown up with our new media ecosystem, and whose wants and needs have done more to shape it than almost anything else?
While I continue to learn from industry titans of all ages (yes, even including Mr. Zuckerberg), I know I couldn’t do my job without being able to talk — and listen — to members of the younger generation. They’re the ones who will end up inheriting this world. They’re the ones who will become the CCOs and CTOs and CEOs who drive the brands that drive so much change and crisis in our world. What’s more, they often have a much more nuanced, deeper understanding of that intersection of technology and ethics, because they live it every day. I’m sure of it: We ignore their voices at our own peril.
Lessons From the Graduate Students at USC Annenberg
One of my favorite parts of my day at USC was a “speed-dating” lunch with the students. All were impressive, but one conversation, with two young women, really stood out. One of them was wearing a baseball hat that said “FAKE NEWS,” and so I asked them about a particular piece of research in USC Annenberg’s 2018 Global Communications Report that’s been bothering me since I read it. The USC survey found that 64 percent of communications professionals think that within five years, the average person won’t be able to tell the difference between paid, earned and owned media — and that 59 percent said they didn’t think the public would care anyway.
I asked the students what they believed, and if they had a problem sorting through paid, earned and owned. One said: “Yes, it can be confusing, but it’s my responsibility to get good at drawing my own conclusions and finding the truth.”
It’s easy to look at that research and be pessimistic about it — it suggests either an uninformed public, an attempt by brands and media to deliberately mislead people, or both — but I think that student’s response means we’re at a really exciting time for our industry. PR is the last line of defense against misinformation and disinformation. The communications department, in other words, is where content meets ethics. In an era of fake news, that’s the most important place we can be.
The Role of the “Chief Change Officer”
Ethics is not a trend, and our kids are showing us what it means to think ethically about using and marketing technology. Mark Zuckerberg’s testimony showed us that older generations are disconnected from the technology that Americans — particularly young Americans — use every day. They are simply not all equipped to have the conversations we need to have. The younger generation is, and they’re not waiting for government regulation — they’re taking matters into their own hands. I see it in the conversations our colleagues and interns are having at WE; in the way young people are showing up on the world stage about burning issues; in the grad students who want to educate themselves and be media-savvy; in the conversations I have with my own daughter, also a university student who’s getting ready to change the world.
Communicators can be the agent of change in an organization, full stop. That’s why our commitment to ethics matters so much. While he was still at Salesforce, Corey DuBrowa argued that CCOs should think of themselves as “Chief Conscience Officers.” At the symposium, Richard Edelman made a similar point — that we should think about the CCO as “Chief Change Officer” — and many of the panelists discussed how the CCO is often the person who brings in the external perspective. It’s a role that’s built on empathy and human stories, and it’s deeply rooted in a moral understanding of the world.
That’s why it’s essential for us to seek out new stories: the stories of people of color, women, and the younger folks we (sometimes derisively) refer to as “millennials” and “Generation Z.” Theirs are the voices that will change the tech industry, and they’ll change our industry too. Thankfully, there are classes full of smart, dedicated, thoughtful students — at USC Annenberg and elsewhere — that are ready to speak up and speak out.
And I, for one, am listening.