IBM’s Former Brand, Marketing and Communication Leader Addresses the Future of Public Relations


What does the future of public relations look like? How does the public relations profession remain authentic in a time of A.I., big data and “fake news”?

Jon Iwata, one of the most respected leaders in corporate communications, addressed “The Future of Public Relations” in a conversation Thursday, March 29. The event was hosted by The Plank Center at The University of Alabama College of Communication and Information Science’s state-of-the-art Digital Media Center, a high-tech teaching laboratory that houses the College’s professional media operations: Center for Public Television and Radio, WVUA-TV and Alabama Public Radio.

Questions were asked by our live studio audience, made up of UA students and faculty, as well as our live stream viewers.

Produced by the Center for Public Television at The University of Alabama

KARLA GOWER: I’m Dr. Karla Gower, director of The Plank Center here at The University of Alabama. And I want to welcome you all here today, our live audience and also those of you who are watching online. It’s my great pleasure to introduce Jon Iwata. Jon is one of the most accomplished personal brands in our business today, thanks to his stewardship of the world’s most valuable corporate brand, IBM. His three-decade career at IBM focuses on his leadership of global communications, advertising, marketing, and corporate citizenship. I should also say, though, that you’ve concluded that career at IBM and has started on a new adventure as an ,executive in residence at the Yale School of Management.

So, we have a unique opportunity today to talk to Jon about the challenges that are facing public relations and communications, the future of it, where we’re going with AI, big data, issues, such as misinformation, authenticity. So, we’re going to take questions. We want this to be a real engagement and a real conversation.

So, we’ll take questions from our live audience, as well as from those watching online. You can just write the comments section. We’ll be sure to ask Jon some questions. So, with that, welcome, and please, would you like to get us started?

JON IWATA: Sure, thank you, Karla. It’s really a privilege to be here at the University of Alabama and Plank Center and to deliver the Koten lecture, which I did a few hours ago with a great audience of students and some faculty.

I gues if I were to encapsulate my message from this morning is that the future of communications and public relations– I would include marketing into that mix– all of those fields have something in common. And we’re trying to reach people to try to inform them. But in the end, we want them to do something, whether it’s to buy our products and services, work for our companies, allow us to operate in their countries or in their communities– something. It isn’t in service of messaging, or even perception or opinion.

And the way that has worked historically– segmentation models, reaching the influencers who influence the many– that’s still true. That’s still true. But we have to add to our abilities and skills a whole new set of things that are aborning right now. And it’s the ability to use data, to understand the people we’re trying to reach as unique individuals.

And that’s been something that’s been talked about and contemplated for many years in our profession, but it’s arriving now in full force. And that’s because all of us as individuals, we are declaring– whether we’re mindful of that or not– we are sharing with the world who we are, what we’re looking for, what our intent is, what just happened in our lives professionally or personally– even physically, we are and much more.

And because of that companies, institutions can take advantage of this data to better understand and more effectively engage these individuals as customers, as future employees, as investors, as neighbors, to be more relevant to them– to have a greater, tighter, more authentic connection with them. So, I talked about that.

I guess, the last thing is what’s not going to change. And what’s not going to change are the fundamental skill sets of clear thinking, clear writing, ethics, integrity, personal as well as in institutional. And perhaps, those will be even more valuable and important in this new world as we are experiencing as of late.

KARLA GOWER: Great should we open it up to questions? With respect to you– and you actually spoke earlier today about Watson. Perhaps you could talk a little bit more about–

JON IWATA: Watson?


JON IWATA: So, Watson was created by IBM Research in 2009, 2008. And it played Jeopardy– played the two best human champions on Jeopardy in 2011. But the question is why? Why was it necessary or desirable to create a new technology?

And you could call Watson a form of artificial intelligence, which we are now seeing in more places– in our kitchens, in our cars, and on the worldwide web, for sure. And it’s because of the phenomenon of data. There’s just no way for humans to keep up with all of the natural languages that’s being created through social media platforms, all of the images that are being created in health care, for example. Whether it’s music, whether it’s sensor data from IoT devices, we need help.

And one, Watson and other forms of AI like Watson are adept at understanding this type of data, which is called unstructured data. Two, perhaps more profoundly, Watson is typical of a new class, a new generation of technology that learns. So, you’ll hear a lot about machine learning and deep learning.

So, there is some programming that goes into systems like Watson, and Alexa, and Siri. But once it receives that initial training, it then learns through interaction and learns through more data ingestion. So that’s really a new era in computer science. And so, Watson was created for that reason.

But I must say, from a standpoint of public relations and marketing, we were very mindful of the fact that a breakthrough technology like this can both cause people to feel wonder and hope and view it as a very positive development, but there are also issues that get created and sometimes anxieties. And so, if I rewind the clock to 2009, 2010, working with the researchers, we decided to position Watson as man and machine, never as man versus machine.

We gave it a name. We gave him his voice. We gave him his appearance in the form of the avatar. And we do this day, we’re very mindful of not over-promising what Watson could do, but also working really hard to help people understand that this is a new era. And that there are many implications of it in terms of jobs, and skills, and application to business and society. And we’re certainly not alone in that regard at IBM.

KARLA GOWER: So how do you see that playing out then for public relations and communications?

JON IWATA: In two ways. Whether you go to work for a company, or a health care system, a university, a government agency, or an NGO, you are going to be trying to reach people and persuade them or compel them to do something on behalf of your institution and your organization. And as I said before, there’s so much data being created to help you be relevant to them, to be timely, to know them on their terms. We cannot do that manually.

And so, we cannot be practitioners of public relations, communications, marketing, and the like unless we add to our skill set the methods, and the tools, and new vocabulary, even, of this new set of capability that’s available to us. And my concern is that some people like to think of this as– we’ve seen this before with radio, and television, and the internet, and this is just another one of those.

It’s not. It’s not. We have to change how we practice our profession. And so that’s simultaneously, one, whoever you go to work for, they’re going to expect that of you because they will all be applying and using data and some form of artificial intelligence– all of them. They will not be technology companies. And then the two was from a professional standpoint, individual practitioner standpoint, this represents a new set of skills and a new set of tools.

AUDIENCE: Hi, yes. Can you talk more about the ethics of AI and how communicators can prepare for those challenges to come?

JON IWATA: Hi. Good question, Skylar. So, ethics– I think the questions that are being raised about data and AI are conjoined. They’re very similar, but they’re not the same. At IBM, the company has staked out a very, I think, progressive position that’s clear about transparency. When are you interacting with AI? You should know that.

Transparency of the people who trained the artificial intelligence because systems that learn are systems that can and are trained. Who trained them? And the data that’s being ingested– it isn’t all the data that’s on the internet. Most of the data in the world is not on the internet, and it’s proprietary data. It’s in the companies. It’s in institutions.

And so, ethics come into play here about transparency, control. People should always be in control of AI. And people should be in control of their own data. IBM is not a consumer company. We serve businesses. But the company’s position has been you own your data. You own your insights.

And now, of course, in the headlines right now, it’s quite topical. Who has control of my data? Who has ownership of my data? And that transparency issue is, once again, really important. These can’t be black boxes. I have to know. And I want to decide. I want to decide.

And I think that’s going to be true– again it may be because a few technology companies are in the headlines today. But if the University of Alabama uses data, if the bank that you bank at, if the health care system you go to uses data, it’s going to become a set of ethical and policy positions for all of them. And I think public relations people and communications people– we can help our businesses and our clients think through these issues, take the right positions, and most of all, behave in a way that’s consistent with our policies and practices.

AUDIENCE: Earlier today when we discussed artificial intelligence, you talked about possible challenges with it, which was over-dependency, which could be something in the culture that may be impacted by artificial intelligence. So, when marketing and developing the brand for IBM and Watson, how do you go about that to avoid and address this potential challenge?

JON IWATA: Great question. So, over-dependency– I mean, we had fun reminding ourselves that we are already dependent on technology. I mean, for those of us who obey the GPS commands no matter what– you can find examples of people driving into rivers and other things because the car told them to do that. And the car must know.

But frankly, recommendations on what to buy, recommendations on where to stay, what airline to take, what music to listen to, what movies to watch, which books to read, other people to connect with– those are recommendations today. And tomorrow, they’re indispensable collaborators, advisors.

At IBM, because you asked a question about that. And I’m mindful of the fact that I did retire from IBM, so I am no longer speaking on behalf of the company. But during my time at IBM, we were very careful to position Watson in partnership with people. I don’t think you’ll ever see Watson, even in advertising, sort of this machine– unbelievable capability.

It’s always trying to help some other person or a B2B company– a doctor, or an engineer, or a tax preparer– to do their work more effectively. And that over-dependence is something that I think is checked because I’ve never seen as something where you just you know abdicate your professionalism, or your work, or your thinking to a machine, which we don’t believe, ever, in our history. And we hope that never happens as these technologies become ever more capable. And they will.

AUDIENCE: Mr. Iwata, thanks for coming to speak to us. It’s always good to hear from people like you in our field. I wanted to ask you, what are some traits that you think young people, college students, junior level people are lacking in terms of marketing and communications.

JON IWATA: Lacking? Well, I don’t want to sound like the old guy here, but I will. I don’t think you could ever be too strong in critical thinking and clear writing. And it’s just a great muscle to have. It will serve you well forever. And it will differentiate you increasingly.

And so, I wouldn’t say it’s a deficiency. I wouldn’t be negative. And by the way, I’m not anti-tweeting, and blogging, and posting, and all of that. It’s a question of whether you use those opportunities to refine the skill. And so, I think as you enter the workforce, wherever you go, those fundamental skills of judgment, critical thinking, clear writing– which, to me, clear writing is also an expression of a point of view, which means you thought something through. Right? That’s true.

The other lack is not unique to people coming out of universities. It’s particularly true of people in the field today, and it’s no fault of anyone. It’s the new. It’s the new set of things that we have to learn how to do right now. We’re past the stage of experimentation with things like social media and the original content creation.

I think people still misread data and digital. They think it’s the same thing. They are not. They think data is research or they think data is measurement. That is not the only thing data is. In fact, it’s not the most valuable part of data.

Those are all new, so I don’t I don’t want to speak poorly of graduates, but I think that’s an opportunity for you. But just don’t make the mistake that because you’re a quote digital native, and that you breathe Facebook, and Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat, and all the rest that you’ve got it.

You’re using it. You’re a consumer of it. That doesn’t mean that one has mastery of the underlying mechanisms of it. I would recommend that you really stare at that, and try to understand, how can these new capabilities be marshaled on behalf of my fill in the blank company, cause, what have you.

KARLA GOWER: And how do you recommend that not just students, but also people who have been in the business for a while and now face this brave new world– so how do you suggest they go about learning these new capabilities and tasks, as we talked about earlier?

JON IWATA: Well, this will sound however it sounds. But you know how when you download an app or you sign on to a new platform, there’s that 5,000-word thing that you go like that, and you say, I agree or accept? I’m not saying read it to protect yourself. I’m saying read it because in there, there are lots of things that would indicate things like who controls data, what they can do with it, third parties beyond the initial provider of the app or the platform.

So, it yields to simply paying attention to things that are available here. It doesn’t have to be anything more rigorous than that. I’ve learned a lot from reading very carefully in retrospect, some of those things. Because you see in there, oh my goodness, my data is going to sit over here if I use documents in a cloud. If I use simple documents in somebody’s cloud, I didn’t realize that other people have access to those things, either de-identified or not. I didn’t realize that the learnings and insights gathered from my usage could be in somebody else.

I mean, when we were talking about, Karla, earlier– how many of you use Siri, Alexa, or Google, at home? OK.

KARLA GOWER: Almost everyone.

JON IWATA: Almost everybody. You ever wonder how is it possible that you say, hey Google, and you know it responds to you, or any of the other forms of conversational bots? How is it able to do that? Because it’s always listening. Because it’s always listening.

And if it’s always listening, what is it always remembering? That you know that? OK, half heads are shaking and half the heads are nodding. And I see lots of very interesting body language here.

I use some of those at home and in professional life. So, I’m not I’m not anti any of those things. But I think we’re into this new era here. We’re learning when we start to use these things– it’s all kind of in there, but we’re not paying attention to it. I think we could start by paying attention to it.

AUDIENCE: Hey, Jon, obviously you had an incredible and long career at IBM. I kind of a two-part question. First off, what are your thoughts on millennials who tend to just change jobs every, say, two to three years? And on that note, we as millennials, what can we be doing to make sure we’re developing traits in our self and the company we might be working for to ensure it’s a good fit– that we’ll last a long time.

JON IWATA: Thank you, so look, I don’t know if millennials are that different from the other generations in this regard. I think millennials maybe move around more because they want to keep learning and being challenged. I don’t think they tell themselves, I need to, should, or they wake up compelled to quit and go to another company.

And so, the onus is on companies like IBM and every other company to keep them. And if you say, well, why do you want to leave? And if the answer is I’m bored. I’ve learned everything I can learn here. I’ve hit a wall. Then either that’s true because of the nature of the business and perhaps the size of the business, or we just haven’t changed our models, or they’re just simply not aware that there is more opportunity here to learn.

Now, I stayed at IBM for a long time– over 34 years– not because of inertia, I hope, but because I learned something new every day. And I felt intellectually stimulated and challenged. And I never felt there was any reason to go anywhere else.

But everybody has to make their choice. I’m just saying that the war for talent is very true. And I think companies will– if they want to keep you, then they will adjust to that to make sure that there is– whether it’s economic incentives, or learning incentives, or whatever, in cultural, they will adjust to keep you or to attract you.

The second question– you know in the 1990s, during the .com period, which is similar to today in this regard, it was very hard to attract talent. Everybody wanted to go to startups and so forth. And large companies were struggling with this.

And so, we thought we needed a new recruitment campaign with new films, and new collateral materials, and so forth. And the campaign, I guess, that was created was brilliant, I thought, because it didn’t talk about IBM at all. In fact, the title of that initiative was “Why Work?”

And it simply asked a series of questions like this– when you conclude your professional career and look back upon it, what do you want the impact of your professional life to be? When you look back on your career, what kind of people would you have wanted to work with shoulder-to-shoulder? On what stage would you have wanted to do your work? The values that you uphold and live by– what values would you want to be aligned completely and uncompromisingly?

And frankly, you can see where I’m going with this, that it turned out to be for the people we wanted to attract to our company, none of them said, we want to bring our dog to work. We want free food. Well, they all want free food. We want this. We want that. We want cool. We want fun. We want a skateboard.

They wanted to make an impact on the world, work with trust and respect. They want to do their work on a world stage. They wanted their integrity and personal values to be reinforced and upheld at their companies. And they almost talked themselves into considering IBM.

I don’t think it’s any different, whether it’s the ’90s or today, or 50 years from now. You alone can answer the question of what you want out of a professional life. And companies are either going to be a good fit or they’re not. And I would just say, that while there are certainly economic factors and things like that, geographic factors, the most important in the long run in terms of satisfaction and making it feel like you made a good choice are these kinds of questions.

KARLA GOWER: And we have a question from a viewer, actually. Do you see traditional titles like press releases and social monitoring being threatened by the new approaches in public relations?

JON IWATA: Well, they probably have to be reinvented. I mean, the press release– if you define a press release as a piece of paper with a date line, and a contact name, and a phone number, maybe it’s outdated. But if you define a press release as a mechanism to force clarity of something that’s legitimately of news value, then it isn’t outdated. In fact, it may be of higher value.

But there are very bad press releases because there’s no news in them, and it’s full of jargon and overclaiming. And then there are good press releases that actually have news and there’s real content in there. And it has passed a litmus test of fact-checking and so forth. So, excuse me.

And the second was social monitoring?


JON IWATA: Now, I don’t I don’t think social monitoring has already become outdated. But I started off as monitoring, what people are talking about on social platforms, and then sentiment is turning out to be table stakes. Like any other kind of data analysis, you want to have a maturation curve, or you want to become more and more sophisticated, and more questions you want to answer– who, duration, intensity, amplitude, and then predictive.

Like a lot of things in analytics, as I’ve learned is, analytics can tell you what happened. Analytics can tell you what’s happening. We all want to get to what will happen. And if you simply judged your use of social monitoring, or frankly, any other analytic tools along that spectrum, the reality is most companies are in what happened– what sold, what did people say, how did they vote one way or the other?

Real-time is still largely aspirational and predictive with accuracy is very aspirational. And that’s true for what will the consumer want? Where will the equipment break down? Where will the traffic jam form? The outcome of the election, the course of the disease– all of that is beginning to yield to data.

KARLA GOWER: I don’t want to go back to Watson, but Watson suggests to me the ability to predict, potentially, based on the data.

JON IWATA: Yes. And the prediction is not magic. One of the things I learned working in the Watson area for a while, is you take five police officers who’ve been on the beat for 30 years. And you ask them where do you think something bad is going to happen in this neighborhood?

And they’ll say, right there. And you said, how do you know that? And they said, oh, the street light’s burned out and the pay phone’s on the outside of that convenience store not on the inside of the convenience store– that’s just begging for somebody to get taken advantage of.

You ask five social workers, you ask five marketers, five doctors– or 50– and what they’re doing, of course, is they’re, like you as a professor, they’re tapping into the entire body of knowledge, and their experience, and pattern recognition, and so forth. And this is why forums of AI like Watson are not magic because they’re adjusting data more in real time. And they’re having the benefit of being trained by experts.

IBM is a B2B company. So, the industry orientation around health care, and banking, and energy, and transportation, and the like is very deep. So, when Watson is trained, it’s being trained on things like on oncology, risk and compliance in financial services, and the like. And that predictive part is to capitalize on the learnings of experts.

AUDIENCE: Since you’ve had a long and accomplished career in IBM, what are some things you’ve had to do to reinvent yourself as a communicator and help reinvent the company culture?

JON IWATA: Personally, I guess if you’re a person who likes to learn, IBM provided a wonderful environment to learn, in fact, you were forced to learn because the technology industry is fierce. You know that. I mean, it’s just new technology, new competitors, new trends all the time.

And so, after several decades, you get trained just instinctively to always be on top of things in the world, things of economics– we’re a global company– things globally, things inside the company. And what really that turns into– otherwise you’re just overloaded with information– is a kind of pattern recognition– just sort of start to see things and so forth.

So, I’ve reinvented myself through the ingestion– that sounds so technical– just by staying on top of as much as I can in real time. But also. IBM is 107 years old this year. It’s very hard for any company to make it to 100.

There is no other technology company that has made it even in 50 or 70. They have act 1. One they might have an act 2. Then they’re over.

And I’ve lived through many reinventions of the company. One was a near-death experience in the early 1990s. I was a corporate headquarters. I saw it very up close. It was awful. It was just awful to have that happen to a company reputation. People were laid off it’s just terrible.

And my parents grew up during the Great Depression. And they never believed in credit cards. And there’s just nothing you can do to change that.

Well, for me that near-death experience in the early ’90s was such a shocking experience in a very formative part of my career that I always feel that something could be at that level of threat. And so, I just sort of commit myself to learning.

As for reinventing a company, our CEO Ginni Rometty says well. You got to know what endures because that’s your uniqueness and differentiation, and you got totry know what must change. And it falls to the CEO and others to try to do that.

And I’triedto help that at IBM. I’ve tried to not misread things that should endure and to not have an attachment to things that didn’t really define IBM and we should just let go of. And it’s very hard to do that because things are successful for the institution, or for you and your career. It got me where I am today. I know what to do here.

You know how hard it is to let go of those things? Sometimes you let go of something that really you shouldn’t have let go of. And so that’s a pedal– that’s the accelerator and the brake. You got to kind of know to do that. Imperfectly, for sure, but I tried to help the company understand what must endure and what must change.

KARLA GOWER: I think we’re going to have to wrap it up. So, one final question. What would be your parting thoughts for our audience in terms of where we’re moving in communications and public relations?

JON IWATA: Oh, terribly exciting time to be in your seats, whether you’re in university, about the end of the workforce, or you’re in the workforce, or you’re at a different stage of one’s professional life. It’s an exciting time and a terribly important one. I mean, who would have thought a few years ago that these technologies could influence not only know what we buy, but who leads important parts of the world?

And that the technology is so new that the issue is never the technology. It’s everything around it. It’s how we use it, who uses it, and who gets to use it. Who gets to say how to use it?

So, I you know I’m very proud of the fact that I came out of a liberal arts background because it teaches you how to think– think critically, think deeply. And I think you’re going to find that whatever organization you join or are part of, they’re going to welcome that.

And that combination of the skills of public relations, communications, and the grounding in thinking, and integrity, is going to serve you well in a career. And we need you to help us think– all of us think through– the implications of this very, very exciting future which is upon us.

KARLA GOWER: Jon, thank you so much.

JON IWATA: Karla, thank–

KARLA GOWER: Appreciate it.


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