How AI is reshaping communications and businesses: SAP's Julie Cleeland Nicholls explains on the big PRmoment India interview

                                PRmoment Interview Series 

Business software solutions major SAP is betting strongly on supporting startups, small and medium-scale companies in India to use Generative AI and Business AI capabilities from the very start.

The SAP NOW 'India: Incredible to Inevitable', conference held in April in Mumbai showcased this effort by SAP.

Julie Cleeland Nicholls, the company's vice president, of corporate communications, APJ, spoke to PRmoment India on the sidelines of the conference for the second interview under the PRmoment Leaders, Insight Series for 2024.

She speaks about how PR professionals should approach AI communication, the impact of AI on PR and PR agency models, and how AI can contribute to ethical business practices.

Cleeland Nicholls also talks about her 24-year journey in Asia, having first arrived in the continent in 2000, what she learned from being a communicator in Asia, the best advice she got about work and her destressing mantra.

Read on. Edited Excerpts.

How to approach AI communications, AI's impact on agency models, Learnings from Asia about communications, The India comms story 

Paarul Chand, PRmoment India: First a bit of a general question, but what are the opportunities for AI and communications?

Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP:
  AI has been around for a long time, but right now I think the inflection point that we're at as communications professionals is that AI is giving us three opportunity areas. 

The first is how we talk about it as a technology that is now having a very significant impact, not just in the tech space, but across our entire world. So how do we talk about it as a technology that people need to know about?

Secondly, how do we as communications professionals fulfill our role as brand guardians or reputation gatekeepers for our organizations as we come to grips with how we are going to be using AI across the business or the organization?

And then thirdly, I think it's about how we're going to use AI and adapt to using AI as communications professionals ourselves.

So let's look at each of those. First, how do we tell the AI story and talk about new technologies? We need to ask ourselves, is that hype cycle real? How are people using it? We have a responsible role to play in not overhyping any new technology, but in speaking about it authentically in a fact-led way, with data points that prove, how people are using this.

Sometimes that means helping excited or enthusiastic executives work through the process of what is an appropriate and accurate way to talk about something new. Sometimes, it may mean we have a role to play as myth-busters; it is often the responsibility of communications leaders to talk truth to power. 

Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP And then the second area, is how we help protect organisational reputation at a time of significant change.

One of the fascinating things about technology is that it often emerges way ahead of regulatory practices. So, people will be adopting it, playing with it, experimenting and working with it before policymakers or elected officials have had a chance to develop regulatory frameworks and policies. I think as communications professionals, we have an opportunity and responsibility to help ethically advance the introduction and adoption of new technology by advocating for, and leading accurate, fact-based and helpful communications about it. AI can actually also help us introduce or behave more ethically in the corporate sector.

One of the fascinating things about technology is that it often comes way ahead of regulatory practices. So, people will be adopting it, playing with it and experimenting with it before the policymakers or the elected officials have a chance to catch up and develop regulatory frameworks and policies. I think that we, as communications professionals have a huge opportunity and responsibility to ethically advance the introduction and adoption of new technology.

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The great thing is, that AI can also help us introduce practices that help us behave more ethically in the corporate sector.

For example, AI can be used to identify unconscious bias in language, such as in writing job descriptions and job advertisements in the HR sector. In finance, ethical AI can be used to ensure fair lending practices, in responsible risk management, or to help ensure transparency in automated trading. So there's also a very great opportunity to be using AI to advance ethical and inclusive business practices.

Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: And finally, how are we using it creatively in our everyday work as communications professionals? 

At SAP, my team has moved from a very manual reporting process to an AI-based reporting process to help us understand our impact and metrics more effectively. It’s given us a much more immediate and flexible dashboard that has sparked very interesting discussions, insights, and actions. So that's one way we're using AI at SAP.

We also have a generative AI launchpad, which is part of our company-wide SAP Generative AI Hub, a large language model. My team and I have been using this to develop pitches, build the foundation of content, test content ideas, and help us come up with left-field ideas. So we're experimenting with it as a team and that's been fun.


Paarul Chand, PRmoment India:
Of late, the term AI washing has come into play. Do you see that as something which is now observed? Or is it an overreaction to AI?  Everybody claims that they are offering an AI service. And how do you as a communicator, handle that enthusiasm?

 Julie Nicholls Cleeland, SAP: The term washing is affixed to so many things. Greenwashing, pinkwashing when it comes to how women are represented and now  hear about AI washing. To some extent, it's an easy way for the industry to point out what we're doing wrong.

The temptation is always there for communications professionals to trend-jack – we’re constantly trying to make sure our messages are topical, on-trend, and will catch the attention of editors and readers alike. That can lead to a desire to put AI into every headline, into every lead paragraph we write – because we know that will catch attention. 

But as communications professionals, we have a responsibility to be fact-based, accurate, and data-driven when it comes to talking about AI, or indeed, anything. So, it’s a short-term gain for a major long-term risk: losing credibility and losing trust for our organisation.


Paarul Chand, PRmoment India: 
In my experience, AI storytelling is perhaps one of the most difficult types of stories to tell, because when you come to the human versus machine narrative, it is also backed by a huge amount of pop culture storytelling, a great bank of pop culture available via books and movies, games to boost that narrative. 

So the automatic default understanding is that AI must be negative. How do you counter that?

Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: 
It feels like we're moving into a future state that we've been imagining creatively for a long time and that brings with it a burden of expectations. And again I think this is where being data-driven and fact-based is super important. We have to be sensitive about this. There is genuine fear out there about what AI is going to do, but it's also balanced with interest and enthusiasm for the opportunities that new technology brings.

I think you know I've been doing technology communications for some time now and with all new technology waves, there's always that element of people wondering how is this going to impact me.  How is this going to change me and my work?

How is AI going to help us, and help address some of the big issues of our generation?

As we consider this, we need to think about our different constituencies as communicators - how are we talking to employees about this new technology and the impact that it's going to have? Are we being transparent? Are we being empathetic? Are we helping prepare them for their new futures through re-skilling and upskilling, as well as preparing ourselves?


Paarul Chand, PRmoment India 
When Chat GPT  first came out there were immediate fears that a whole level of PR professionals are out. In your experience, have you observed any major job loss in the comms industry and if so, at what levels?


Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: 
I have not at this point. In fact, I suspect the role of communications professionals is going to be even more important because of the need to strike a balance in public discourse between future state and current state, and between opportunity and fact. In the quest to communicate ethically and accurately in times of transition and change, communications professionals are in the best place to help organisations do that.

I do think that there will be an impact on agencies and the agency model, which has been in place for so long. I don't think agencies will go away, but I think they are going to go through a very big transition in the next couple of years, and this is underway now.


Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: And I think that all agencies should be looking really seriously at the services that they offer at their structure and how they're going to go through this, this inflexion point and this transformation and come out the other side.

So I think there will always be a place for the agency model, but I think it's going to be very interesting to see how they move through that transformation. 

I believe all agencies should be looking seriously at the services that they offer and at their structure. I think it's going to be very interesting to see how they move through that transformation.


Paarul Chand, PRmoment India:
As a client, in what direction would you like to see them move? 
Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: 
 I've been thinking about this a lot. I think that agencies need to do a fundamental reset of their structure, I still see a lot of inefficiencies across agencies in Asia Pacific.

But without careful and mindful senior oversight and supervision, it can be a short-sighted and inefficient model. With generative AI now in a position to empower some of the foundation work that they do, overlaid by more senior agency expertise and industry or subject matter credibility, agencies could be in a very strong position to bring very relevant, sharp, and cost-effective services to their clients.

I do think agencies are a wonderful training ground for PR professionals in the future.
I started myself in an agency – Edelman alumni! - and was always very grateful for the excellent grounding it gave me and what I learned from the seniors there. To this day, I love hiring people who've had agency experience because I think it's invaluable.

I do sometimes wonder if, in a rush to adopt AI practices and to cut costs, agencies might stop bringing so many young people in and I do think that would be a short-sighted approach. The same is true for in-house. We have to continue bringing interns in, hiring in graduate programs, and bringing early career talent into our teams – this is nurturing the communications professionals of the future.


Paarul Chand, PRmoment India: W
hen you say clients, client servicing should be structured differently. Would you be able to share how?


Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: 
I think what we're looking for is for agencies to move away from so much tactical support and for agencies to be offering a genuine combination of strategic and tactical support. 

One of the things that we always hope our agencies are going to bring to the table is a broader outside perspective of what's going on in the industry – advance trends, and sharp insights that we may have overlooked. In theory, agencies should be able to do this and in practice, they rarely do. In my experience, I think they have the ability, but the day-to-day practice gets in the way. 

If gen AI can lift some of that burden to free agency people to think more creatively, it can only be a good thing. If they can synthesize that and package that up in a more operational activation for clients, I think they could be really onto a winner there.

Paarul Chand, PRmoment India: You have been in Asia for 24 years, what have you learned from working in Asian markets?

Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: What I've learned from Asia is how to scale, because if you can't scale in Asia, you cannot keep a communications function going. As a region, it’s just too big, too diverse and too fast-paced. By scale, I mean being able to experiment, learn, standardise, measure, and grow. At the same time my peers and the teams I've worked with in my career across Asia have taught me the importance of maintaining a strong local voice while having a scale engine supporting that. For instance, you need an approach that can be conceptually developed at a central level. But then is handed off to the highly expert practitioners around the region for that local-relevant, last-mile execution.

I’ve also observed a cultural difference between how in the West we tend to approach things with an individual mindset – the rights of the individual, the entitlements of the individual. I’ve learned that many Asian cultures value a more community approach: what’s right and best for the community, how do we reach the best outcome in a collaborative and community-led sense. Each of these approaches is important, and getting the balance right is something I’ve learned I think during my time working across Asia.

One of the things that stands out for me about India, in particular, is that the communications market here, which I often find even unique within Asia, is that it is very strongly connected to stories about the national agenda.

Some of the more developed countries don’t have such a strong connection between how we can move together to advance our nation in the right direction. I enjoy that about India's communications practices.

Paarul Chand, PRmoment India: What's the best bit of advice about work you have got?


Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: 
 My father, who was a wise and wonderful man, always told me “Hurry slowly”. I have a strong bias for action, which means I tend to jump into things sometimes and he always reminded me to hurry slowly. By that he meant, move with speed - yes, but also make sure you are moving with consideration for others; with care, diligence, and discipline in your thinking. And this is something that I've always carried with me.
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Paarul Chand, PRmoment India: 
One last question. What is your decompression mantra?

Julie Cleeland Nicholls, SAP: 
I am an avid reader and I sincerely believe that everybody in our profession must at heart always be a reader, because we care about words, and we care about the power of words. I usually have two or three different books on the go at any time. I love especially historical fiction.

Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall trilogy is a wonderful exposition of the power games that went on in the Tudor era, and I recommend it highly. I also love nonfiction and enjoy reading sociological books, in particular about the trends that are impacting all of us around the world.

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