I’ll start with the punch line: I almost threw up.
But let me explain.
It was September 2017. The previous day I’d attended the Concordia Summit, an annual global conference in New York City that coincides with the convening of the United Nations’ General Assembly.
Outside the Concordia plenary hall a man approached me and introduced himself as a business development director at Cambridge Analytica. I had heard of Cambridge Analytica before. I knew they had worked on the Trump campaign, although I wasn’t sure in what capacity. I was slightly more familiar with their work in Kenya in 2013.
But neither association was negative enough to squash my enthusiasm when he invited me to an event the firm was hosting the following evening. He handed me an old-school flyer; the event’s title, “The Future of Crisis Communication,” was catnip to a crisis junky like myself – not to mention an ironic nod to what would eventually unfold.
I walked into the expansive downtown loft the next night and immediately felt like I was in a movie. There were easily 300 people in attendance, if not more. Everyone seemed to be attractive, well dressed, and under 40. And even though it was a Tuesday night in September it felt like a roaring holiday party with ample alcohol and frivolity.
I’d half-forgotten about my interest in crisis communication when several young men in sharp suits began asking the crowd to quiet down. A PowerPoint presentation began. I followed along casually until one slide compelled me to start feverishly taking notes.
The presenter boasted to this room full of PR professionals what we now all know: how Cambridge Analytica used Facebook and other means to collect approximately 5,000 data points – ranging from consumer habits to psychological traits – to create detailed personality profiles for 230 million Americans.
(I remember thinking, “Isn’t that just about everyone over the age of 18?!” The answer is, Yes.)
He went on to explain how this information can be used to design and target powerful messages that speak to people’s unique psychology. He told us how useful this information could be to our work not only in crisis communication but also “emotional storytelling” (his words) and thought leadership campaigns.
Now, this was far from my first introduction to behavioral science. It wasn’t even my first presentation on how people’s seemingly private information is used for persuasive purposes. (All those mailers that regularly clog up your mailbox? They come to you because marketers know how much you earn, how much you spend and on what, how much your house costs, and much more. My apologies: I have helped create some of that direct mail.)
Still, as this particular presentation continued, I began to feel woozy. Teetering in my heels and sinking under the weight of my computer bag, my eyes scanned the room desperately for a seat.
Instead, I saw nothing but rapturous grins.
My stomach suddenly turned. “What is happening?!” I frantically thought.
I wasn’t just questioning my flagging health. I could not understand why no one else at this party seemed the least bit disturbed by this presentation. I knew I was in the minority in my concern about social media. But even in today’s era of big data and increasingly invasive technology, this new offering felt extreme.
As people eagerly lined up to speak with one of the dozen or so Cambridge Analytica representatives after the presentation, I overheard one group of partygoers proclaim this as “the future of public relations” (and even emphasized the point by exchanging a boyish high-five).
That thought only hastened my nausea. I rushed for the exit.
Fast forward six months later: Cambridge Analytica and their work became headline news and one of the biggest scandals of 2018.
“What took them so long??” I texted back a friend who had sent me the New York Times article just as I was reading it myself. “They were only bragging about it all over Manhattan!”
To be fair, additional reporting pieces had since fallen into place, including a whistleblower. And previous reporting on Cambridge Analytica’s use of personal data had largely fallen on deaf ears.
But a few days later I had a more important question: Why hadn’t I thought to pitch it to the New York Times myself?
Instinctually, I had known it was news. And my body that night was telling me an even bigger truth: what Cambridge Analytica was doing was wrong. I am not a queasy person and my one glass of red wine that night surely did not create that physiological response.
But at that time I sadly trusted a sea change wrought by technology (and specifically social media) more than my own intuition. So I ended up feeling depressed about what seemed inevitable rather than speak out against it.
This all feels so 2017 now – and for that I am relieved. But moving forward, I cannot lose sight of this important lesson.
I was reminded of that “future of PR” comment last month when I attended the annual research symposium for the Institute of Public Relations. Dr. Bey-Ling Sha from San Diego State University gave a compelling presentation on the professional challenge PR practitioners face as the gap between who we say we are and who other people think we are (or what we actually do) grows.
For example, our industry has long avowed to be ethical in our work. (Here’s the Public Relations Society of America’s Code of Ethics, which presents the core values of our profession.) And yet public relations is too often considered a euphemism for unethical behavior – e.g., covering up or “spinning” clients’ malfeasance.
Billings are no doubt important. And so are getting great results for clients. But we must never lose sight that serving the public interest is vital to the integrity of our profession as a whole. Today, and in the future.