For two days in mid-June, I went back to school. No grades, no pressures. Just me in a classroom with
a world-class professor and 28 of my industry peers. Our master of ceremonies was Dr. Ashish Nanda, Robert Braucher Professor of Practice at Harvard Law School and Harvard Business School Executive Education Fellow. Dr. Nanda has led this program for PR Council for nearly 10 years, and his experience shined.

Our curriculum was based on Harvard Business School case studies. We spent our time reviewing broader digital disruption through experiences of some of the world’s most innovative companies – New York Times, Amazon, Uber, Nike and United Airlines. There were charts, calculations, discussions on “radical innovation” and “business cannibalization.” Of all the information bouncing around in my head during the three weeks since the program, one statement made by Dr. Nanda stood out above the rest:

“We are entering the ‘Golden Age’ of public relations.”

Really? Are we? Of course, I wanted to believe the claim, but I couldn’t help wondering if our good professor was pandering to the audience. After nearly 12 hours of debate and discussion and three weeks of reflection, Dr. Nanda’s words are truly sounding wiser by the day.

In today’s hyper-connected, digital world everything is online, public and instantly chronicled into human history. I have read that in 2017 alone, we as a people will create more data than the previous 5,000 years combined. How much data does Amazon have on you? They know what I eat, what I watch, what I read. Not only is every tweet, post or sneeze a part of public record, but information seems to spread at the speed of light. Just ask United Airlines if a certain video of a certain customer experience traveled faster digitally than it would have as a VHS tape in an analog world. Beyond data and the viral spread of content, organizations are moving swiftly toward automation and artificial intelligence (Uber is all over this), and are increasingly asking for human experiences to be distilled into zeros and ones.

As momentum carries (or ) the world to its future, digital, automated self, I see a pendulum that will undeniably swing back. I’m not suggesting a resurgence of snail mail pen pals. Rather, as we discussed at the Harvard Leadership Program, I refer to the importance of the human element.

Uber’s technology platform can do wonders by itself connecting supply with demand, but can the platform mitigate damage to the company’s reputation resulting from actions taken at the C-suite level? Can social media bots effectively calm real human concerns following video footage circulating about a United Airlines customer experience? As advertisers encounter online ad blockers, will automation alone be able to create original, emotional and effective content that captures attention and moves people to brand loyalty?

As some of the most successful, tech-forward, innovative companies are discovering, perhaps they should focus a bit more on the human element, the emotional appeal, and the building of a sound reputation. One way to get started? Ask someone in PR.

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