Communications Visionary

Jan 08, 2024

WTC Dublin’s Conversation with Ellen Gunning on Entrepreneurship, Crisis PR, and Shaping the Future of Media

In 1992, the landscape of public relations education in Ireland underwent a transformative shift with the establishment of the Irish Academy of Public Relations. This groundbreaking initiative, founded by Ellen Gunning, a visionary entrepreneur, sought to meet the burgeoning demand for PR education across the country. Fast forward 30 years, and the Academy has evolved dynamically, embracing online education, expanding globally, and becoming a cornerstone in shaping the international narrative of public relations. In this exclusive interview, the founder not only delves into the Academy's evolution but also shares insights into her ventures, including the cloud-based data-analytics platform, Mettacomms, and her perspectives on the future of communication.

WTCD: Can you share the journey of establishing the Irish Academy of Public Relations in 1992 and its evolution over the past three decades? How has the landscape of public relations education changed during this time?

Ellen Gunning: I formed the Irish Academy of Public Relations because, at the time, there was only one course that you could study in PR and that was in Dublin. I knew that there was interest around the country, so I created the Academy and started offering Diploma courses at University College Dublin, University College Cork, and Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. In the 30 years since then, we’ve changed from in-person courses to online diplomas for new industry entrants, upskilling courses for established practitioners and corporate training courses for in-house PR teams. We’ve added teaching partners in Dubai, Greece and Nigeria and now have graduates in 55 countries around the world.

Public Relations education over that period moved online and became international, reflecting the changes in private education generally in the same period.

 WTCD:  As the founder of Mettacomms, a cloud-based data-analytics platform, what inspired you to venture into this particular aspect of the communications industry in 2019? How do you see technology shaping the future of communication?

Ellen Gunning:  I formed Mettacomms because I was really conscious that the volume of data was making it very difficult for individuals to stay on top of what was happening. The more I looked into it, the more I realized that the real challenge is trying to get sight of what might happen in the future. Mettacommms is a platform which uses artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing to find future trends. It’s a fascinating area. We are an early warning system. We don’t know what the future holds – but we can show you the trends that you should be monitoring.

Technology, especially generative AI, will undoubtedly save us lots of time. It will eliminate the need to digest large volumes of text (it can read and highlight key points for us). It can already write poems and songs, create artwork, write code. We already have facial recognition software, voice-activated search (think Alexa or Siri), auto predictive text (it finishes your sentences for you) etc. We’re only at the beginning of the AI revolution. It’s going to be a fascinating journey.

 WTCD:  With a focus on Crisis PR, could you elaborate on your experience and approach to crisis management? What key principles do you emphasize when advising organizations in preparing for and managing crises?

Ellen Gunning:  Crisis PR is my specialty. Every organization, no matter what area of business they are in, should have a crisis plan in place. Some businesses will need to devote small amounts of time. Others, for example, anyone dealing with children or pharmaceuticals, will need detailed plans in place.

In terms of managing a crisis there are a number of key rules:

1. Try to respond as quickly as possible – even if you can only say that you are investigating.

2. Be honest. Tell the truth. Accept responsibility if it is yours.

3. Don’t guess, speculate, allow an inference to sit, or fail to correct an error. Don’t deflect blame onto others.

4. Have pre-trained spokespersons ready to communicate with the media.

5. Don’t forget to include stakeholders and employees in your communications.

6. As the crisis is coming to a close, always take time to explain what you have learned and what steps you put in place to make sure that this never happens again. Thank people for their loyalty and for staying with you.

WTCD:  As a prolific author, having written books on PR strategies, tactics for SME businesses, and influential women in Dublin City, how do you balance your roles as an entrepreneur, communicator, and thought leader? What motivates your diverse range of writing topics?

Ellen Gunning:  My work and private life almost blend into each other. I’m rarely sure where one stops and the other begins – and it’s wonderful. I enjoy the company of people, so I’m always chatting – and learning! I’ve had great female role models in my life, so I try to be one to others. I love reading (although I never get enough time) and I’m fascinated by developments in technology. That informs lots of questions that I want answered. I’m really lucky to be surrounded by fascinating people who enjoy debating and answering. Those answers end up as insights which are either shared in presentations at conferences or in media interviews. In turn all of that helps me, I hope, to be a better entrepreneur and author – and, hopefully, an interesting friend! 

WTCD:  Being a regular media commentator on Ireland AM and a blogger on communication and comms tech issues, how do you stay abreast of the rapidly changing landscape of media and communication technologies? What trends do you find particularly intriguing or challenging

Ellen Gunning:  I’m utterly fascinated by the development of AI and generative AI in particular. The world is changing around us, and I love the challenge of trying to keep up! From a communications perspective, the ability of Artificial Intelligence to create audio clips that sound like you (although you never uttered those words), or video clips of you saying something (that you never said) is interesting. It is both amusing and worrying at the same time. You could have great (innocent) fun with it, but you could also create really disturbing media that people would believe. It is a huge challenge for PR professionals and their clients.

The ‘trend’ that I find most fascinating is the future. I give a lot of presentations on what the future will look like, whether that’s the future of travel, or spirituality, work, healthcare, lifestyle, or food. I cannot read enough or watch enough video clips about it and, of course, Mettacomms is mining sources to showcase future trends which means I’m always keeping an eye there too!

WTCD:  Your involvement in various professional organizations, such as the European Association for Distance Learning, Public Relations Society of America, and International Public Relations Association, reflects a global perspective. How has this international exposure influenced your approach to communication and business?

Ellen Gunning:  I’ve always loved to travel. I thoroughly enjoy meeting new people. I like experiencing new cultures, tasting new foods, and being immersed in new experiences. Business is exactly the same. I’ve always enjoyed having a global view of business. Seeing how my business could contribute to the world, and learn from different parts of the world, and adopt some communications practices, and adapt others to an Irish environment. The wider we cast our nets, the more we learn!

WTCD:  Having received several awards, including the European Parliament Journalist of the Year, Chambers Ireland CSR Award, and Tech Entrepreneur of the Year, how have these accolades impacted your career and the trajectory of your businesses? Additionally, what do you consider as the highlight of your lifetime contribution to the PR industry?

Ellen Gunning:  I’m a big fan of awards. They do a number of things. Personally, they show that your peers recognize the value of what you are doing – and that always means a lot. In addition, your team gets the award with you because every award recognizes work that would not have been possible without the team supporting you. And each award also adds to the reputation of your business as cutting-edge, forward looking, reputable, well run, and setting a standard for others to follow. I don’t think there is a straight line between awards and returns, but there is definitely a connection.

The highlight of my lifetime contribution to PR? Gosh. That’s a very big question. If you had asked me 5 years ago, I would have said my book “Public relations - A Practical Approach” which is taught at third level to students entering the industry, globally. That’s a terrific achievement.

But, since I started developing Mettacomms, I believe that will be my legacy. I am training the algorithm to behave like me. I am putting all of my years of experience and knowledge into the development of that artificial intelligence.  When we are done, I will honestly be able to say that I will live forever as an artificial intelligence resource. Not everyone can say that!

As we reflect on the past three decades, it becomes evident that the journey of the Irish Academy of Public Relations is a testament to adaptability and foresight. Ellen’s multifaceted career, from pioneering PR education to venturing into cutting-edge technologies, highlights the transformative power of innovation. As the World Trade Center Dublin (WTCD) looks forward to collaborating with the Irish Academy of PR to offer members Business Communications Workshops and Masterclasses in the coming year, it reinforces the commitment to staying at the forefront of industry trends. In an era where technology shapes communication, and crises demand strategic management, this entrepreneur, author, and thought leader continues to pave the way, leaving an indelible mark on the landscape of public relations.