Many communicators know blockchain is a technology that’s associated mostly with electronic cash or cyptocurrency called Bitcoin. They may know Facebook plans to unveil a cryptocurrency, Global Coin, late this year and put it on the market in 2020. Some say it won’t be a cryptocurrency, but instead more like PayPal or other digital wallets. There’s far more PR should know about blockchain.
One advantage of using digital currency in a financial transaction is that it removes the middleman. Blockchain technology makes that possible.
This is because blockchain technology, in theory, at least, eliminates the ability to manipulate information after it (the information) has been put in place. As different sources create a chain of data, the technology locks it, making it immutable.
“Blockchain is a ledger system of who touches what and when as data courses through any sort of supply chain or flow,” says Nikki Parker, SVP at 5WPR.
She likens blockchain to the life of a diamond. First it’s mined, then assessed and weighed, tracked, and recorded, all with a significant degree of validation and 100 percent trust.
So instead of having a bank oversee financial transactions between two users, they can use electronic cash, such as bitcoin, and deal with each other directly.
What Blockchain Could Mean for PR
Blockchain technology has uses beyond the financial sector. “Regardless of the industry…there’s a blockchain application for it,” says Katie Creaser, SVP at Affect PR. “This is why communicators need to pay attention.”
For example, Walmart is using blockchain to track lettuce shipments and ultimately, prevent E. coli outbreaks.
In healthcare, blockchain can be used to house electronic health records, making it possible to securely share information across providers.
Blockchain Beyond Finance
Later this month, during a conference in Los Angeles, researchers from the University of Surrey will present a paper that could have implications for the PR industry, as well as many others. They will discuss the development of Archangel, a database that uses blockchain and AI to safeguard digital government records from the U.S., U.K. and Australia.
Archangel is jointly maintained, so “everyone can check and add records, but no one can change them. As no data can be modified, the integrity of the historical record remains intact,” the university said last month in a statement.
Blockchain technology “essentially provides a digital fingerprint for archives, making it possible to verify their authenticity,” says John Collomosse, a professor who heads the project at Surrey.
Adds Jeni Tennison, CEO of the Open Data Institute, “It is becoming easier and easier to manipulate digital records, which makes it crucial for the institutions who take care of those records to be able to demonstrate their trustworthiness.”
Archangel is one of many projects in the Surrey blockchain testbed, a nearly $5 million group of efforts in the emerging technology.
Blockchain as a Promoter of Trust
In a sense, a proof-of-authority blockchain system makes it possible to create the ultimate in trust and authenticity. This ability could render blockchain vital to communicators.
“Imagine,” Creaser said, “being able to identify fake news indisputably, winning the battle against fake Facebook accounts, bots and deep fakes.”
As trust in media takes a beating with the rise of fake news, Creaser believes there’s a substantial place for blockchain in PR. “Blockchain can be used to open up content’s metadata, including the origin of the content, the date and time of publication, and even the editing history…this could provide an opportunity to promote trust in media sources.”
Push Blockchain Use Cases
Another question for communicators is how to incorporate blockchain into a brand’s narrative. The key, says Meredith L. Eaton, North America director of the PR firm Red Lorry Yellow Lorry, is that “we’re moving away from conversations about what blockchain is to how it’s being used.” As blockchain is used in more applications, PR pros need to shift emphasis to “use cases, offering proof in terms of customers or data, and providing credible spokespeople.”
James Beck, who heads global PR at ConsenSys, a blockchain software technology company, agrees. “Blockchain can be needlessly complicated if people attempt to merely explain the protocols that govern it,” he says.
Instead, communicators should emphasize blockchain “as a means to a new type of internet architecture where value is natively digital and privacy and data ownership are strengthened,” he says.
PR’S Blockchain Battle
He admits this may be a battle. “PR will need to challenge founders of blockchain-based companies…to not espouse the technology itself, but as a means to an end that provides greater value for consumers and enterprises.”
It’s evident that PR pros credit blockchain for being plausible and practical. They see it as having a place in the industry, yet also needing time to mature.
“There’s no doubt blockchain holds an incredible amount of promise, but generally...the industry is still immature,” he says.
“A few years ago, we saw the ICO boom (initial coin offering, roughly cryptocurrency’s version of an IPO)” and some PR pros were inundated with calls from very early stage start-ups. These companies, he says, “wanted support to get in on a unique way of fundraising-some of these companies raised lots of money, while others violated SEC regulations.”
Fortunately, according to Beck, the regulatory crackdown “is helping the cream rise to the top.” He anticipates seeing “more companies…using blockchain to disrupt old systems…and fewer start-ups that want to use blockchain to issue a coin and get rich quick.”