“Content is queen, algorithm is king”. Those were the words of Omar Kbiri from Dutch agency Maak, one of the many inspiring speakers at the Dutch Communication Congress earlier this week. In turns inspirational and provocative, Omar was not in the only speaker to challenge a room full of communication professionals. Presenters from Google, Ikea, Dutch insurance company onna-onna, Philips, ANP and others addressed topics that are keeping us occupied today; the need for the profession to be more data driven, the demand for your employees to be the first stakeholder in any plan or strategy, the power of storytelling and the fact that our function is heading into unexplored territories.
In this data driven world, with algorithms determining what content we take in, do we need more beta professionals to join our profession? Google’s Mark Jansen seems to think so. In his presentation, he stated that we creative, right-brained people would benefit from more left-brained colleagues. But is the question here whether we should be ‘data over content’, a direction that we could be heading in by doing what Mark suggests, or should we try harder at combining the two? I would like to believe in the latter – we need to understand both data and content and how they interrelate. Data should be put in service of content, helping us to create, deliver and engage with top-quality content.
But the Congress also reinforced to me that our understanding as communications professionals of content also needs to be revaluated. What exactly determines good content and whether or not it is appreciated by our audiences and stakeholders? Strong content is a combination of several components, with form and images as fundamentally important as words. However, the communications profession has been focussed on using the ‘power of language’, which has its limits. As Stephan Ummelen of Values Driven Organisations put it (referencing Wittgenstein), “language is an imperfect vehicle of communications”. Can we actually express ourselves well enough through language, in particular when trying to connect with those outside of our bubbles? Not according to Ionica Smeets, a professor in science communication at Leiden University, who brilliantly described how experts communicate in jargon, ensuring that their messages are hardly ever understood outside of their specific circles.
In summarising the day’s discussions, final speaker Omar Kbiri provoked the audience with his statement “content is queen, algorithm is king”. If we dig into this a little deeper, we can see how he quite appropriately describes where the communications profession finds itself challenged today. With the rise of social media and digital natives eager to experiment, creating excellent content has become achievable for everyone. On top of that, artificial intelligence enables us to delegate content to bots and respond at a speed that we could never before imagine. Last, but not least, AI also enables research to be automated in previously-unimaginable ways, and the future looks both bright and challenging because of so many parameters changing, if we believe Abderrahim Ait Ben Moh of Zoom Media. New ways of measurement and analysis will be implemented before the profession gets a true grip on best practice.
The future of a function
So, what does this mean for the function? Where is the communications profession heading? Will it exist in 2025? If so, what form will it take and what shape will the teams and departments have? What profile will fit the ideal communications professional and the chief communications officer?
In exploring some of these questions at the Communicatie Congres, we learned that AI will ‘take over’ and as such deliver challenges, but also provide us with great opportunities. One always hears the argument that the marketing function will be dominant. I don’t believe that. The communications function is, in my view, the only function that has truly been taught to relate to all stakeholders, with an understanding of the context a company or organisation operates in. All other functions feel accountability to one particular stakeholder, or a couple thereof. True strategic communications cuts through the functional silos and across stakeholders.
Based on the Congress’s inspirational content, I imagine a world in which, thanks to AI, quite a bit of our function is automated, with repetitive tasks delegated to bots and analysis done in real time and at our fingertips. We have insights at operational level and are able to tap into an IBM Watson-type of answering mechanism enabling us to respond with wisdom to the most ethical issues we are dealing with. We have a real time response rate to any query, are able to have dialogues rather than monologues and the pace in which we operate is mind boggling. The communications function is spread as it is now, but focus areas differ to today’s. Traditional forms of press spokespeople are gone while content creation is undertaken by everyone, whether internal and external (and such boundaries will have disappeared altogether).
As such, the challenge for the chief communications officer is to be more strategic than ever before, understanding the contextual realities of society, mastering the ability of ‘empowerment’ - far beyond her/his direct reports - with an ability to deal with ethical issues and advise accordingly.
Few have embarked upon this journey. Yet, there is an embedded fear of letting go in communications professionals (and probably in human beings), which will make this journey a challenging one. As Niccolo Machiavelli wrote in The Prince (1532): "There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things." So, let’s explore together – I hope you will join me in this journey.
Inge Wallage is Managing Director of the EACD and owner of The Butterfly Effect: Strategies for Transformation. Her professional experience includes Engagement Director for International Water Association, Director of Communications at Greenpeace International and Vice President Communications International E&P at StatoilHydro.