Future of PR, Fake News and Storytelling

This week we’ve been chatting to Ben Maynard, Managing Director and Chair of EMEA Technology Practice at Burson-Marsteller, to talk about the future of PR, the impact of fake news and how big brands and corporates can continue to innovate and share their mission through captivating and engaging storytelling.

1. Can you tell us a little about your role and background?

I lead Burson-Marsteller’s technology practice in EMEA  – what this means is that I work with colleagues across the region to deliver high quality communications advice and activities to our clients in the technology sector. What I’ve seen over the last 25 years is a number of significant shifts as technology, and the businesses behind it move from being niche players of interest to a defined audience, to being global brands of relevance to almost everyone. This, of course, has changed our role as tech communicators and we now find ourselves working with clients to promote products, present opinions and react to issues across the whole corporate, social and political landscape.

Ben Maynard Managing Director and Chair of EMEA Technology Practice at Burson-Marsteller
Ben Maynard

2. How do you help your technology and B2B clients to stay innovative and build trust with their brand?

There are two distinct parts to this question. Most of our clients are innovative themselves. Our role is to help make sure their innovation cuts through and is noticed by the right people. Usually this means crafting messages and creating stories that weave their innovations into wider issues and trends – showing how the innovation helps in context.

Ultimately, this feeds into the latter part of the question. My view is that today technology for its own sake is not enough. All audiences, from consumers to businesses to politicians presume that technology is going to work, and that this year’s model will be better (and cheaper) than last year’s.

Building trust requires something more – an insight, a point of view, a context that relates the organization as well as the product to the lives and needs of the audience. I call this building reputation beyond product.


3. We now live a world where the news cycle is 24/7. Do you have any helpful tips on staying up-to-date on the news agenda?

Personally, I believe news and news media are at a crossroads. There are powerful and, in many ways, opposing forces at work. 24/7 news, and the channels it exists upon, demand constant updates and detail and sometimes this leads them to fall for ‘fake news’ as seen a couple of weeks ago, amongst the awful ‘real’ news of the earthquake in Mexico. The story of ‘Frida’ the missing girl who never existed.

News is completing in this 24/7 online world with a host of alternatives for ‘eyeballs’ and attention. Be it individuals’ social media feeds – their selfies and Snaps, or gaming, online music, movies etc there are hundreds of alternative things to engage in.

At the same time, people’s attention spans are decreasing – they want instant gratification and ‘snackable’ content. All this means that it is very easy to get distracted, and the only way to fight this is to create some effective filters. If played correctly this can be an opportunity for media.

My own filters are based on media ‘brands’ that I trust. I still get most of my news from the BBC, the FT and The Guardian – albeit all online and via apps. I supplement this with services like Catalyst that can provide very focused and detailed feeds on specific topics of interest.


4. How do you think emerging technologies such as artificial intelligence and automation will impact the PR industry?

Officially, PR is one of the ‘fortunate’ industries where the impact of AI on jobs is thought to be less than elsewhere. However, I don’t think we can rest on our laurels. There are opportunities for automation and AI in every industry – even professional services such as PR and communications. And this is a good thing. We are increasingly using more and more data to help us target stories and measure the impact we are having. AI can certainly play a role here in helping to analyze and shape campaigns.

#ArtificialIntelligence will play a role in helping to analyze and shape PR campaigns. Click To Tweet

Automation of research and insight is already underway to some extent – although I think it is important that it is used as the primary filter to provide an information set for human analysis rather than a replacement.

Even writing could someday be replaced by AI. Already there are ‘bots’ that can produce sports write-ups from listing to baseball games, and I would not be surprised if some of the more transactional communications such as financial market updates could not be automated relatively soon.


5. What are some the key challenges on the rise of “fake news” and combating the social media echo chamber?

Fake news itself is not new. Ever since media has existed there have been salacious, inaccurate and downright mendacious publications, and of course there is a long history of propaganda. The difference we find now is that many of the clues and context that allowed people to ‘sniff’ out fake news have been removed.

Consumers are unaware how their choices, browsing and even choice of social media contacts are used by algorithms to ‘target’ them with news calculated to cause a reaction. This insidious, invisible filtering reinforces rather than challenges views.

The other big difference is the speed and ease by which news spreads. All media are vying to capture attention, and so are racing to get the best (and most shareable) headline (look at the Frida story above).

All media are vying to capture attention, racing to get the best and most shareable headline. Click To Tweet

They have less time and less resource to fact check and to develop insight and this creates an environment where fake news can thrive because it no longer stands out. The challenge, and the response to this, it to ensure that our client’s communications are always credible, relevant and evidence-based so as to cut through rather than contribute to the noise.


6. How does Catalyst help you track digital innovation trends? How does it differ from other media monitoring tools?

The difference I find with Catalyst is that you can use it to hone in on real insight. Rather than giving me 100 hits for a key term, it delivers just a handful which I know are relevant, and reliable. It also helps me to counsel my clients as to what to say – what is the current debate, who is leading it and what are the ‘white spaces’ in the conversation into which we can authentically place ourselves. As noted above, there is too much news, and too much noise, Catalyst helps us to cut through it for our clients.

Catalyst helps us cut through the noise and find relevant insights for our clients.


7. What are the top 3 trends in PR and marketing you expect to see in the next few years? 

In the technology space companies will increasingly spend more time and effort on building reputation beyond product. Informing customers about what’s new will remain important, but leaders will spend more time on corporate narratives that differentiate them in ways above and beyond technology leadership.

Content will still be king, but increasingly it will be used to deepen engagement on a one to one basis with customers through co-creation and shared opportunities. The media will continue to evolve. There may be a ‘flight to quality’ as fake news undermines trust in social and online news sharing and people revert to trusted brands to do their filtering for them.


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