Wearable technology: the only way is #PRethics

Wearable technology: the only way is #PRethics

This is a speech that I gave in a debate at the House of Commons, London last night on the impact of wearable technology on our profession. The CIPR hosted a Debating Group event to debate the motion Wearable Technology is an ethical nightmare for the communications, marketing and PR professions.

During a lively discussion chaired by Lord Clement-Jones, Technologists and future thinkers Stephen Davis and Neville Hobson proposed the motion and Firefly's Claire Walker and I led counter arguments.

During the debate issues of codes of conduct in public relations, data, privacy, technology and healthcare were all discussed.

Responses from the floor were considered, thoughtful and insightful, and there was an excellent discussion on Twitter via the hashtag #PRethics.

I'm pleased to report that Claire and I convinced the meeting of our arguments and the motion was defeated.

But that wasn't really the point. This was a great platform to discuss some of the fast moving ethical issues in the public relations profession.

It is a discussion that will undoubtedly continue to develop as rapidly as the market.


Wearable technology: the only way is ethics Speech for Debating Group event House of Commons, 7 July 2014


My Lords, Ladies, and Gentleman,

Management consultant Deloitte predicts that the combination of smart glasses and fitness bands will sell 10 million units in 2014, generating $3 billion.

Canalys reports that the market will grow to 23 million units by 2015, and more than 45 million units by 2017.

The public relations business has been slow to adopt new technology in the past. We were late to recognise the opportunity offered by blogs, branded forms of media, and most recently social networks.

It has been an awakening for our business.

I would urge practitioners tonight not to miss the huge opportunity that wearable technology offers as a force for good, and means to advance professional practice.

I will argue that wearable technology provides significant potential for the relationship between citizens, organisations, stakeholders, and the state.

I will also argue that we must view wearable technology simply as a new iteration of technology, and that our existing ethical frameworks provide adequate protection

Health and wellbeing

I stand before you today 20 lbs lighter than I would have done if this event had taken place in spring.

I owe that weight loss to my eight-year-old son who as a product of our Government’s Healthy Schools initiative pointed out my expanding girth on the football field.

It led me to purchase a device that I’ve been wearing on my wrist since March. It’s manufactured by a French company and tracks my movement during the day.

This very basic feedback loop has resulted in me increasing physical activity and managing my diet better.

Weight loss isn’t the only benefit. Exercise has resulted in improvements in sleep, blood pressure, and mental health.

The only ethical issue here is my personal excess and lack of exercise before I started using the device.

As human beings we typically know only three things about our physical well being: our age, our height and our weight. An we’ll almost always withhold at least one of those pieces of information when asked.

More detailed information about the human body is typically only ever monitored in a trauma situation or during a serious illness.

The fact is that wearable technology improves transparency in the patient/physician relationship.

Applied at scale this technology has the potential to radically change our lifestyle decisions, reducing rates of diabetes and heart disease. That's only the start.

It isn’t an ethical issue but it may be a solution to improving the health of a nation and relieving the pressure on our overburdened health service.

Electronic surveillance: old tech

Brits are monitored and tracked more than the citizens of any country. Our daily movements around our towns and cities are recorded by both private and state CCTV cameras.

This is the legacy of the 911 terrorist attacks. I’m not making a judgement on whether this is right or wrong I want to simply record that we’ve accepted this as a norm.

The technology to record or track an individual’s activity has been available for several decades. It isn’t the stuff of Q in Ian Fleming’s James Bond movies; it’s available to anybody via eBay or Amazon.

This is the story of the miniaturisation of electronics that has adhered to Moore’s Law over the history of computing, doubling in processing power every two years.

Cameras have been embedded into tie pins, watches, and pens. Audio recording equipment fits into a match box or USB drive.

This key ring sat on the desk in front of me cost me £10. It is able to record audio and video, and if I’d been so intentioned could have been recording every moment of this debate.

It would take me seconds to upload and share the content via the Internet. This is no different to the function of Google Glass.

My point is that this technology has been available since the 1980s, and hasn’t required us to reinvent our ethical frameworks.

Faster cars don’t demand a rewrite of the Highway Code.

Principles of public relations practice

As a public relations practitioner I have signed up to a Code of Conduct set out by the CIPR.

That calls on me to maintain the highest standards of professional endeavour, integrity, confidentiality, financial propriety and personal content.

It also states that I must deal fairly in business with employers, employees, clients, fellow professionals, other professions, and the public.

These two principles, along with four others that you can look up for yourself in the Code, adequately cover the issues that we face from wearable technology, as they have with prior generations of technology.

They have provided a framework for professional practice for the last 20-years of my career, and I’m confident they’ll see me good for the next 20-years.

Our opponents in this debate are right to call for ethical considerations of wearable technology but my argument is that existing frameworks are sufficient.

In my view the issue that we should be tackling is the public relations and marketing practitioners that haven’t signed up to a professional Code of Conduct. The only way is ethics.

The eyes have it

In 2014 traditional forms of marketing are starting to feel dumb, and stale. We are bombarded with around 3,000 brand messages a day. That’s a lot of cars, fizzy drinks and washing powder.

Most are ignored of course. Those that do resonate will usually be rooted in an insight based on a truth, and typically a higher order human need.

I often describe the social web as the biggest market research exercise that no one commissioned. It can be incredibly valuable to brands that are prepared to plug into the conversations that are taking place about their market, organisation or product.

Relationships rely on an exchange of information. Marketing practitioners view that relationship as one-way whereas public relations practitioners view it as a two-way dialogue that starts with listening.

My view is that consumers are prepared to sign-up to a more personal relationship with a brand providing that they receive sufficient benefit.

The currency for the brand is data, and the pay-off for the individual must typically satisfy a physical or emotional need.

We share our data via apps and social networks in return for services. Smart brands such as Apple, Disney and Nike have spotted that wearable technology are a conduit for this relationship.

Trust is critical to this relationship remaining healthy. If the brand oversteps what an individual deems to be acceptable the relationship will breakdown.

This is part of the much larger narrative around open and transparent brand and organisational communication.

Response and reaction of citizens

The Cluetrain Manifesto taught us in 1999 that markets are people, and that the Internet enables us to connect and form networks.

In Brand Anarchy published in 2012, Steve Earl and I describe how this can be used for good and bad in the engagement between citizens, organisations, brands and the state.

Anarchy was a bid to grab headlines and snare reviews, but it is also the reality for organisations that fail to engage with their markets, and take proper care over how they record and share personal data.

Facebook and Google have discovered this to their cost in the very recent past. Changes to services, and terms and conditions are scrutinised by markets.

Customers use social forms of media to noisily complain and then vote with their feet. In my view the market polices itself.

Lords, ladies and gentlemen, I urge you to recognise the opportunity of the fast growing $3 billion wearable technology market, and recognise that this is not a new ethical challenge for the public relations profession.

It is a force for good for improving health. It is means of improving the dialogue between citizen, organisation, stakeholder, and state.

I call on you to vote for innovation. Vote for citizens. Vote for the market. Vote that our Codes of Conduct are robust. Vote against this motion. The only way is ethics.

Thank you.


Sources and further reading

  1. CIPR Code of Conduct (opens as PDF), CIPR, Accessed 23 June 2014
  2. Why use a wearable, MIT Media Lab, Accessed 23 June 2014
  3. Strategic principles for competing in the digital age, McKinsey, May 2014
  4. The Wearable Brand, Tracking Your Every Move, Harvard Business Review, January 2013
  5. My phone knows more about me than my family, Stephen Waddington blog, February 2014
  6. With wearable tech like Google Glass, human behavior is now a design problem, GigaOm, June 2014
  7. The Deloitte Consumer Review (opens as PDF), Deloitte, January 2014
  8. Wearable market heating up, TechCrunch, February 2014
  9. Cluetrain Manifesto, Doc Searls, 1990
  10. Brand Anarchy, Steve Earl and Stephen Waddington, 2012


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