Why wearables represent a PR opportunity, COVID trackers, and how to engage in intimate relations

By Jim James,

Founder EASTWEST PR and Host of the SPEAK|pr Podcast

Wearables are probably one of the growth stories of the last two or three years. For Apple, their wearables have paced the iMac sales and the computer sales and are getting up there to be on line with the iPhone sales. Trackers and mobile apps are hot news, especially because of the COVID tracking apps. In the UK, the National Health Service issued a press release on the 18th of June 2020 on the Test and Trace service which they launched on the Isle of Wight, a small island off the south coast. They say in their press release that following rigorous field testing and a trial on the Isle of Wight, they’ve identified challenges with both their app and the Google-Apple framework. They go on to say that they have encountered a number of technical challenges and that they had to stop the trial. They conclude the press release by saying that they are going to need to work with Apple and Google for the iOS and the Android platforms, because they realised they cannot develop a platform-agnostic app from scratch.

The British government, the Singaporean government, and governments around the world are realising the technology and power that multinational firms have and at the same time trying to harness it themselves, failing to understand that they are not in control of the technology they need to reach out and communicate directly with their own population. It’s slightly embarrassing for th governments, because they thought that they could take a stance and develop something on their own without a nod to the technology platforms that are so deeply ingrained in everyone’s lives. On the other hand, this raises issues for PR and for consumers on the communication around privacy and public relations. Commercial entities like health insurance, airlines, supermarkets are all now trying to give benefits of engaging with their wearable or trackable devices. Undoubtedly, wearables and growables are growth markets, but it is also something that causes some concern among consumers. 

Pharma companies have become interested in this wearable, hearable, and trackable industry that they are now buying into startups. Bayer bought $25 million worth of funding with a company called Medopad, which is a UK startup developing AI methods for building and tracking digital biomarkers. Alphabet, the umbrella company, has been involved in thermostats and the nest offering for video doorbells, and has security cameras that automatically adjust settings based on user behavior. So, with wearables, hearables, and trackables in our home, data is being created that is part of an automated response by other activities and devices. At some stage or another, when doing public relations and media relations, one will need to become aware of the impact of all of these different kinds of technologies. 

Evidence-based research on the impact of wearables

A research project undertaken by Charlotte Kerner and Victoria Goodyear in 2017 in the UK on the Motivational Impact of Wearable Healthy Lifestyle Technologies analysed the self-determination perspective of wearing Fitbits on adolescents. In this study, they gave Fitbits to children in one school in the southeast and another in the northwest of the UK. The assumption had been that if you give these children trackable health devices which are telling the children if they’re doing enough exercise, how many calories they’re using thing that, somehow, it would impact their behavior. Interestingly, however, they discovered that in the short term, there was an increase in the amount of activity that took place, but it was through short-term motivation around competition, guilt, and internal pressure. In the longer term, behavioral patterns were what they called amotivation. After eight weeks, the children then ceased to actually undertake activity and ceased to participate. In other words, the external drivers that were telling them that they were not doing enough enough steps were not sufficient to create behavioural change. Unfortunately, this only created potentially negative implications for young people, because they weren’t geared around internal desires for change. They were geared around other people’s metrics for what they felt these people should be doing.

This then leads to the role of PR, because technology in itself doesn’t change behavior. Public relations and this new area of wearables, hearables, and trackables necessitates the need to address issues of personal privacy, anxiety, and motivation. For companies that promote wearables and other technologies that basically dovetail into the biometrics and psychometrics of consumers, it’s important to think about what is being done outside of technology to reassure, engage, and motivate the people using it. Said differently, these trackables should not be the drivers of the communication strategy. Instead, they should be augmenting it, and the data that they’re creating should give some clues as to what other information businesses could be sharing.

The impact of wearables is going to be that, as PR people, the job entails reassuring audiences of the benefits as well as informing them of the potential downside of those as seen from this Kerner and Goodyear study, especially when it comes to the youth. When marketing products and services to young people that are a technology-based product or service, there is a duty of care to those children and also to society that guidelines are put in place around what those technologies can and cannot do. In relation to this would be the impact of screens and screen time and that there isn’t any guidance given by manufacturers to children. Devices and gadgets are being used by these young people who are not well-versed in the potential dangers of technology and the impact it could have on them. And so, this then comes back to the public relations message of purpose. If the company purpose is to improve or make a difference in the lives of people and if companies are using technology within the private space of their customers, partners, or staff, then comes the responsibility to explain to them the role of that technology, what kind of data it will collect, and the choice for them to opt in or out. 

Algorithmic public relations

As a result, solutions like the Test and Trace for COVID are met with some anxiety from the general public even if it is being endorsed by the medical community and the fact that it relies heavily on technology platforms for rollout and for consistency. That means, quite possibly, that consumers or businesses will have to share data with the government through these platforms of Google or of Apple. This ushers in a new era in which there is a term called algorithmic PR, which focuses on how data is being used for delivering information through platforms like Google My Business. Algorithmic PR is going to be involved in analysing the data that comes from wearables, hearables, and smart home devices to create metadata that will become the basis for communication going back out into the marketplace. What’s interesting is that metadata can be categorised or gathered by geography, by demographic, maybe even by weight, height, or physiology, since the same health profiles around the world are impacted, rather than people simply grouped by geography or by culture, as demonstrated by COVID. 

If you have newsletters, there is the GDPR which are the guidelines on compliance and taking people’s information without them knowing, so keep your consumer in mind when sharing their information. It’s important that they feel reassurance of the safety of the information they will be sharing, because otherwise, the data will not be forthcoming and people will start to rebel against using those. The benefits of the wearable technology, the benefits of cameras in stores for monitoring quality control procedures, and of using RFID tags will be circumvented by people deciding to turn off the data collection. When it comes to algorithmic PR, which is the use of the data from what people say and, when using that to create new content and sharing that across platforms, keep the benefits of that data, but be responsible in the use of it, and part of that responsibility is going to be communicating to people how it’s being gathered.

Intimate relations

The SPEAK|pr program talks about three different audience groups: internal, external, and allies, and with this, wearables, hearables, and smart home devices are creating a level of granularity in those audience groups that could never have been imagined when it comes to PR. Maybe it will be time to replace the word “public relations” with “intimate relations,” because the data that is going to be coming back from all these devices is increasingly personal, from the data produced as a result of wearing a watch, carrying a phone, making a purchase, or even now with smart home devices where lights can be turned on and off by command.

Looking at the UK NHS’ and the Singaporean government’s failure to gather data without partnering with iOS and Android, here is an issue where data protection is going to be collected by or through a third party, and so from a PR point of view, it’s going to be even more important than ever to collaborate and to be in alignment with those partners about the use of the data. As seen with the Cambridge Analytica, failure to have integrity with data can lead to the downfall of a company. With respect to public relations, wearable technology is a new paradigm, as it is a whole new product category that can drain whole new lines of business as well as create a whole new area when it comes to public relations or what can be considered intimate relations that business will need to address.

This article is based on a transcript from my Podcast SPEAK|pr, you can listen here.

Cover Photo by Mateo Abrahan on Unsplash

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *