Axios Communicators

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March 14, 2024

โ˜€๏ธHowdy! We're back from Texas with a lot to share.

  • ๐Ÿ”ฎ But first, Axios' third annual What's Next Summit returns to Washington, D.C., on March 19. Check out our speaker lineup and register for the livestream here.

Today's newsletter is 1,664 words, about a 6-minute read.

1 big thing: Royally bad communications

Photo illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios; Photo: Stephen Pond/Getty Images

A botched photo editing job has captured the world's attention, thrusting conspiracy theories typically reserved for message boards and blind items into the mainstream discourse.

Why it matters: The British royal family's recent PR blunders show that there's no place for vague communications during the age of social virality and misinformation.

Catch up quick: In January, Kensington Palace released a statement saying Catherine, the Princess of Wales, was taking time off to recover from a planned abdominal surgery and was expected to spend up to two weeks in the hospital to recover.

  • The palace's communication left royal watchers with more questions than answers, igniting the spread of conspiracy theories online.
  • The masses started to get concerned in February after William, the Prince of Wales, failed to attend a memorial service for his godfather, King Constantine II of Greece, citing "personal matters."
  • On Sunday, Kensington Palace released a photo of Kate and her children in honor of U.K. Mother's Day; however, wire services such as Getty Images, AFP and the Associated Press quickly issued kill notices, saying the image had been doctored.
  • The following day, the palace issued a statement from Kate apologizing for any "confusion" the family photograph might've caused.

Between the lines: The royal family has a "never complain, never explain" policy and instead uses visuals to communicate a specific message or tell a story โ€” which is why this string of missteps is so suspicious.

What they're saying: "The quickest way to lose a story in the middle of a crisis is to not tell a story at all," crisis communication expert Molly McPherson tells Axios.

  • "Reasonable people understand the need to withhold information โ€” especially with regards to health. But when there is too much engineering happening to hide that information, people become skeptical and are drawn to get to the bottom of it themselves."

Plus, royal watchers note that members of the family are far removed from the palace's comms and public relations efforts, and that is why the Princess of Wales' taking the blame for the altered photo doesn't pass the smell test.

  • "It would be akin to President Biden handling his own social media posts," said one longtime communication professional who asked to speak on background.

The big picture: Audiences are more media literate and keen to understand such public relations tactics, and this instance should signal to the palace that its comms strategies are outdated.

  • "The most interesting moment of change is when institutions assume the old playbook still works โ€” and then find out it doesn't. That's what's happening to Wills and Kate now," says Matt Locke, CEO of U.K.-based strategic communications firm Storythings.
  • "Queen Elizabeth managed the press extraordinarily well. ... But the vast majority of her reign was pre-internet and social media. Like a lot of old institutions, the royals just haven't developed sustainable playbooks for the digital media age."

What to watch: The reaction to the dodgy statements and misleading photo signals that Kensington Palace's cozy relationship with the media could be souring.

  • Add AI to the mix โ€” which will inevitably enable the spread of more mis- and disinformation โ€” and Kensington Palace could have a real problem on its hands.
  • It's clear the palace is unable to contain misinformation, and since it has squandered credibility with the media and the public, it could become more difficult for it to correct misinformation or online speculation in the future.

๐Ÿ’ญ Eleanor's thought bubble: It's rare to see the palace communicate in such a ham-handed way.

  • Either the palace is underestimating the savviness of the general public and struggling to keep up with the new media landscape or it is intentionally being clumsy at the expense of Kate's reputation.

Go deeper: The British monarchy's guide to visual communications.

2. Chart: Conspiracy chatter

Cumulative interactions with top posts mentioning Kate Middleton, select platforms
Data: Information Tracer; Note: Interactions include likes and comments, as well as retweets and quote tweets on Twitter; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Conspiracy theories surrounding Princess Kate skyrocketed across social media following the doctored photo and apology.

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3. SXSW dispatch: Communications in the age of AI

GoFundMe chief corporate affairs officer Margaret Richardson speaks with Axios' Eleanor Hawkins at the SXSW Axios House. Photo: Cori Baker on behalf of Axios.

After a solid year of artificial intelligence dominating the conversation, folks attending SXSW are starting to focus on the human elements of an AI world.

Why it matters: Communicators remain steadfast in their role as dot connectors at a time when AI threatens a company, brand or leader's ability to capture attention.

Driving the news: Close to 300 SXSW attendees dropped by the Axios House on Monday to hear from GoFundMe chief corporate affairs officer Margaret Richardson, LinkedIn vice president and workforce expert Aneesh Raman and Jim O'Leary, North American CEO of event sponsor Weber Shandwick, about the evolution of corporate communications.

The big picture: More than 90% of online content could be generated by AI by this time next year, according to some estimates.

  • Eventually, that could lead to generative AI models being trained using data produced by other AIs rather than human beings.

What they're saying: This will make skills like communication, empathy and critical thinking even more in-demand, said Raman.

  • "We're entering what we're calling the relationship economy, where social abilities, human unique skills are going to come to the center. And what's at the center of that is communication, connection and how you collaborate with others. Those are now core skills for comms professionals."

Zoom in: GoFundMe is also prioritizing personal stories to promote its corporate brand and help users fundraise across the donation platform, Richardson told Axios.

  • "Our platform is powered by human stories โ€” and that will never change. I think we can see ways in which AI can help people to tell their stories, but it will never replace the dignity and the authenticity with which people are sharing and connecting with stories," she added.

Plus, communication and corporate affairs professionals will continue to play a key role in helping companies, brands and leaders avoid the trapdoors of weighing in on ESG or political, social and global issues, said O'Leary.

  • "Because CEOs are dealing with all this pressure, there's probably greater demands on corporate affairs teams than ever before. But beyond the demands, there is an opportunity to demonstrate more material value to help leaders navigate through all of this complexity. Corporate affairs is required to play a role in actually making business decisions versus just, you know, executing communication โ€” and that's a big change."

The bottom line: As AI enters the mainstream, the role of thoughtful, strategic and human-driven communications will become even more important.

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4. 48 hours in Austin

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

SXSW is overwhelming, whether you're a first-timer or a veteran of the weeklong festival.

Here's what I experienced while on the ground in Austin:

๐Ÿ‘€ What I saw: Big brand activations from Audible, Porsche, La Croix and Paper Mate โ€” which was a real crowd favorite.

  • I also attended SXSW panels on geopolitics and managing global crises before popping over to the Female Quotient's Equality Lounge for views of Lake Austin and conversations about the gender gap.
  • Later, I dropped by the Inc. Founder's House for a Topo Chico and talk from fintech founder Suneera Madhani.

๐Ÿฆป๐ŸปWhat I heard: There was a lot of chatter about the potential TikTok ban and what it could mean for creators, brands and news outlets.

  • Communicators and marketers were also abuzz about AI's advancements in personalizing the user experience and what an AI-curated content bubble might mean for society.

๐ŸŒฎ What I ate: The most insane fajitas at La Piscina in the Austin Proper Hotel (hat tip to our local tour guide, Axios Austin reporter Nicole Cobler).

๐Ÿ›ด How I got around: As a chronic over-booker who's still adjusting to the logistics of in-person meetings, it was Bird Scooter or bust.

  • While I was apprehensive at first, all it took was a little nudge from Axios publisher Nicholas "Do It for the Content" Johnston for me to quickly realize that scootering was by far the fastest way to get around SXSW.

โณWhat I missed: A lot (most notably the Black Keys).

  • Next year, I plan to enlist AI tools to help map out my session schedule and determine how best to manage my time.

๐Ÿ“ง Did you attend SXSW? Share your thoughts.

Go deeper... Check out Axios Austin's guide to free programming and music happening around town.

5. Morgan Stanley's marketing move

Illustration: Gabriella Turrisi/Axios

While Morgan Stanley was not present at SXSW, the financial institution is still attempting to entangle itself in the cultural fabric via the world of sports and fashion.

Why it matters: Expectation for brand marketing has shifted. Audiences expect to see culturally relevant marketing campaigns that clearly tie back to the product and highlight the company's overall mission.

Driving the news: Morgan Stanley has launched its aspirational marketing campaign "From Grit to Vision," featuring professional golfer Justin Rose, and recently collaborated with Rebecca Minkoff to create a refreshed banker bag for the next generation of women on Wall Street.

What they're saying: "You don't always control your brand message," Morgan Stanley chief marketing officer Alice Milligan tells Axios.

  • "Much of [the control] now is in the hands of consumers, and you need to meet them where they are and determine how they're influenced by peers, family members, friends and the culture at large. And so thinking about that ecosystem holistically has really been an important part of our strategy," she added.

Between the lines: These partnerships also serve as a way for the brand to introduce itself to new audiences.

  • "The role of sponsorships, partnerships and collaboration is really important because people may not be familiar with your firm, but if you partner with the Women's Tennis Association or Rebecca Minkoff, it can signal what your brand is and what your brand stands for in a way that's maybe easier for people to digest," says Milligan.

What to watch: Which brand could become the next Bud Light by activating a disjointed, values-driven marketing campaign during a fraught election year.

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6. ๐Ÿ’ก1 quote to-go

Photo: Cori Baker on behalf of Axios

"We can safely say that the role of corporate affairs is arguably more materially important to the success and failure of a company, brand or CEO than any other time in recent memory โ€” maybe ever."
โ€” Jim O'Leary, Weber Shandwick CEO of North America, at the SXSW Axios House

โœ… Thanks for reading! And a special thanks, as always, to Nick Johnston and Jay Bennett for editing this newsletter.

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