MATTER OF FACT – News, Views & Trends from the World of Public Relations by Ahmad Itani, Founder & Chief Executive Officer of Cicero & Bernay Public Relations

Getting real about virtual reality

At the 2015 World economic forum in Davos, top political and business leaders were reduced to tears. The cause of the emotional outburst was a virtual reality (VR) film called ‘clouds over Sidra’, which captured life in a Syrian refugee camp from the perspective of a 12-year-old girl named Sidra. The film generated a reported $3.8bn — more than 70 per cent above the donations projected — when the UN showed it at a fund-raising event later that year. attendees who watched the video were twice more likely to donate than those who did not.
There are three important takeaways from this vivid example: VR can affect people on a deeply emotional level; VR is powerful enough to influence people into action; and VR can achieve outstandingly high conversion ratescompared with other mediums. the overwhelming response to ‘clouds over Sidra’ made VR a widespread tool for supporting humanitarian causes, and it is no surprise that major companies such as Adidas, Coca Cola, McDonald’s and Qantas soon cottoned on to the power of VR to influence customers and generate hype.
At the start of every year, PR professionals wheel out VR as ‘the next big thing’, touting it as a ‘revolution in storytelling’. I am not of this opinion, and would like to offer a contrasting and more realistic point of view. In a PR context, there is a major barrier to the mainstream adoption of VR — limited reach — because clunky and expensive headsets narrow VR’s impact to on-ground events. 3D TV and cinema have failed miserably to make it to the mainstream for the same reason. While VR may be capable of converting a large percentage of a very small audience, this is still not as valuable as influencing a small percentage of a very large audience. VR is likely to become an important part of a well-rounded experiential strategy, but while it may be a ‘thing’, it is certainly not the ‘next big thing’ for PR.
So what happens if the technology improves significantly over the coming years and really does permeate our lives on a day-to-day basis? at that stage I believe the Pr industry would have an entirely different issue on its hands — one centred on the ethics of using a medium that is both highly manipulative and easily manipulated. this has worrying ramifications in a world already blighted by fake news. VR is serving a noble purpose in the humanitarian world, but it also has the potential to undermine the very values that set the PR industry apart — integrity, sensitivity, truth, and human interactions.
It’s time to get over the hype and get real about virtual reality.