As the industrial revolution replaces humans, where will PR fit in?
Living in rapidly evolving times, I sometimes think about what we as PR professionals do — and why. Public relations has had a clear role to play in the industrial revolution for nearly a century, but as society evolves, we must adapt, too.
The phases of the industrial revolution
Where does PR fit in? One of many ways to think about how our world got industrialised is to think of it in three overlapping phases:
Phase I: Liberating humans
The industrial revolution liberated society from a less civilised (and much poorer) agrarian lifestyle.
Phase II: Utilising humans
The industrial revolution utilised society by schooling us into utilitarian single-output instruments.
Phase III: Replacing humans
Finally, the industrial revolution will replace the last one of us completely in favour of better machines.
Public relations, for better or worse, is functioning as a lubricant for the interface between the industrial systems and real people engaged in producing and consuming. This is how we, as a profession, has found our role in the greater scheme of societal development.
Of course, this simplified view of the industrial revolution is in many ways provocative, but this perspective bears interest as it places the digital transformation not as a separate revolutionary shift, but rather as the natural outcome of the industrialisation process (i.e. Phase III).
An interesting observation here is that the PR function was entirely born, evolved, and matured during the industrial revolution’s second phase.
An almost existential PR challenge
Being the interface between industrial efforts and humans, PR has always found itself at the intersection between objectives and ethics. But as we’re well underway transitioning into the phase of replacing humans rather than utilising them, we face an almost existential challenge.
For me personally, as a PR professional, there are two pertinent questions that springs to mind:
For two decades now, whenever I’m asked the question what I do for a living, I’ve replied that, “I help organisations to communicate better.” That to me, has always felt like an accurate and meaningful answer. But what is an accurate and meaningful answer applicable for the next two decades?
The future of PR — an optimist’s outlook
I don’t know any more about the future than anyone else. However, this much I do know:
Transforming humanity into replaceable parts of industrial processes was never a desired end result to begin with. The use of PR to facilitate and establish the foundation of a more prosperous and advanced society was always just a stepping stone.
In history, bursts of societal progress has often meant that humans have been freed up to think, communicate, and create. And it’s often in these rare and inspired times of enlightenment that we take great strides towards discovering meaning, creating art, and understanding the universe.
And in an enlightened post-industrialised society, great communication skills will be as valued as they are today. Perhaps even more.
For PR to one day move beyond the industrial revolution is in itself not a failure — it’s an accomplishment.