The Heart of the Story

Her sister, Aedhmar (pronounced Aim-er) Hynes, was still a child when Garry founded the Druid. That means she came of age in Garry’s shadow, not to mention that of their father, Oliver Hynes, the top educator in western Ireland. “I grew up working in the theater and I considered myself artistic, but not talented in the same way that Garry was,” Aedhmar begins recently at her Craftsman-style house near central Greenwich. “Working there did give me a love for the English language, for storytelling, for theater, but one thing that became clear to me was my desire to move out of Ireland and that spotlight. I was either Oliver Hynes’ daughter or Garry Hynes’ sister. It’s a small town and Ireland is tiny—everybody knows everybody. I just wanted to find my own way.”

It turned out that Aedhmar was a storyteller, too—but of a different kind.

In 1990, after studying English, economics and marketing at National University of Ireland Galway, she departed for London. She landed at a start-up public relations firm called Text100 Global Communications. The firm’s mission was quite specific: to focus on new technologies.

“The compelling thing was not necessarily the communications, but rather the technology,” she says. “That’s what I really got passionate about. Most agencies at that time were generalists”—taking on accounts in beer, breakfast cereals, whatever. Text100, though, had hit upon a niche that was destined to break wide open: translating tech companies’ complex, often science-heavy stories into lucid narratives. “These companies wanted to come to an agency that understood intricate concepts and then was able to make them accessible to the masses.” That is to say, Text100 takes advances in cloud computing or artificial intelligence or internet communications and builds public information campaigns around them. (Recently it did so for IBM’s Smarter Planet” a vision for making new technologies work more systemically to create smarter cities with better power grids, water systems, and the like; and for slightly less ambitious projects like Kayak.com’s Travel Hacker, a data-driven tool to help people travel smarter.)

The wind was at Text100’s back; technology was about to enter a new age. The World Wide Web hit in 1990, the same year the Hubble Space Telescope was launched. By decade’s end we would see widespread use of email and cell phones and the advent of Amazon, Google and the iMac. Just around the corner were Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the iPhone. That’s a lot of disruption—major shifting from one thing to another—in a very brief period.

Aedhmar’s first big account in Europe was not a hip tech newbie, but a venerable old giant: Xerox. Born as the Haloid Photographic Company in Rochester, New York, in 1906, Xerox developed the first plain paper photocopier in 1959. The Xerox 914 and its descendants—color copiers, faxes, printers and print-on-demand technology—made Xerox one of the most important brands in the history of brands, though not one without headaches. Consider the Steve Jobs incident.

Everybody knew about Xerox’s copiers—“Xerox” was a verb long before “Google” was—but few knew about the corporation’s wilder side as a computer vanguardista. Jobs, cofounder of the fledgling Apple, did know about it. He’d heard fantastic tales of the goings-on at Xerox’s innovation hub in Silicon Valley—called the Palo Alto Research Center, or PARC—and he wanted nothing more than for PARC to “open its kimono” to him.

“Jobs was the fox, after all, and PARC was the henhouse,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker. In 1979 Jobs angled for a tour and wound up getting two. It was there, on a personal computer called the Xerox Alto, that Jobs first laid eyes on the mouse, on icons, on windows and menus that opened and closed with a double click rather than with lines of code. It was there that he noodled around on a newfangled word-processing program and sent email within the PARC network. Jobs, somewhere between agitated and ecstatic, described these innovations as “revolutionary.” And he took them back to Apple and built a cheaper, better machine: the Macintosh.

“The story was that PARC had ‘fumbled the future,’” Aedhmar says. “They were really struggling to address that narrative. I mean, it is a great story—the notion of Steve Jobs showing up and making off with their ideas.”

But it wasn’t entirely accurate, and it certainly wasn’t the whole story. John Seely Brown was then PARC’s director and chief scientist. He notes that Xerox, headquartered in the East (Connecticut, actually, though with much of its operation in Rochester), regarded PARC as a free-swinging Western outpost. “They saw us kids as hackers,” he says with a chuckle. In the context of the times, Xerox’s brass not unreasonably viewed the PARC innovations as belonging to the hobbyist market—not the business market that Xerox was geared to serve. (Among other things, Xerox’s machines came with a three-year money-back guarantee; personal computers, evolving so fast, would have violated that branding precept.) “And so some of the stuff we were doing just didn’t fit into the standard channels,” explains Brown, who is today regarded as one of the world’s great thinkers about innovation. “They thought, ‘Well, what channels might it fit in? Why don’t we find the most likely person to make it succeed?’”

That was Steve Jobs. So it wasn’t theft after all; it was design. In return, Apple sold Xerox a huge block of stock for a very low price. Now, Xerox didn’t hold onto that incredibly valuable stock, but that’s another story.

In 1997, after much success in Europe with Xerox, Aedhmar Hynes was sent to San Francisco to work with PARC (and to carve out a Text100 foothold in North America). On one hand, PARC had never outrun the “fumbling” narrative; on the other, their continuing stream of innovation was not getting the public airing it deserved. When Aedhmar got there, however, she found John Seely Brown less than happy about it. “I think she was sent out to provide adult supervision on how we talked to the world,” he says. “I took it almost personally, that she was sent out to clean up my act.”

He remembers telling Aedhmar, “Are you kidding me? What makes you think we need help?”

Aedhmar knew that Brown was giving a talk that day, and she asked to sit in. “So I gave this needless to say brilliant presentation,” Brown says, “and I was very proud of myself.”

When he asked Aedhmar what she thought, she said, “Pretty good.” No doubt the lukewarm praise struck him like a splash of cold water. The talk was indeed brilliant, she added, but perhaps it was too brilliant. Had he given any thought to showing how his ideas could matter to Xerox’s customers? To the wider world? To the storytelling that drove it all home?

Brown certainly had many stories to tell. He had hit upon the idea, for example, of bringing in anthropologists, sociologists and artists to work shoulder-to-shoulder with scientists in order to see a technology whole, from every possible angle, to understand how it should best be used. “They would even take a musician, or a mother, or a child, to cocreate concepts and solutions,” Aedhmar adds. “No one had told this story.” That multidisciplinary approach is now famous.

“She got me to think about my purposes beyond just glory,” Brown says. “It was a very interesting awakening for me. I told her, ‘You’re kind of a cool kid. You want to hang around with us?’”

A STAR THAT KEEPS RISING
Aedhmar is a youthful-looking fifty years old with a trim physique and short, sleek, light-brown hair. She is the mother of two boys and two girls ranging in age from twelve to twenty-three. She is friendly, quietly intense, and vigorously, fiercely intelligent. “She’s wickedly smart,” says Margi Booth, chairman of the MBooth agency, whose clients include Twitter, Google and Mercedes-Benz. “And she’s funny and she’s wise.” (Text100 and MBooth are owned by the Next Fifteen Communications, based in the United Kingdom, though they operate independently.)

Back in 2000, when she must have appeared to be barely out of college, Hynes was named chief executive of Text100. At age thirty-three she was an industry star. Her reputation has only grown since then. Last year she won the Arthur W. Page Society’s Distinguished Service Award, a great laurel in the PR field; shortly thereafter, the Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations honored her for being an outstanding mentor.

“Have you ever seen her speak? She’s mesmerizing,” says Roger Bolton, former president of the Arthur W. Page Society, composed of elite PR people and dedicated to truth and integrity in communications. He recalls her lighting up the room at a conference in Mumbai. “Aedhmar had been asked to define creativity and she said, ‘Seeing the world differently and being open to the possibilities.’ And I thought, That’s her. That’s who she is.”

Today, Text100 has more than 600 employees and twenty-six offices around the world, from San Francisco to Madrid to New Delhi to Shanghai. (Hynes works out of the Park Avenue South headquarters in Manhattan.) Its 250 clients include IBM, Cisco, British Airways, American Express, SunTrust, Facebook, Skype, DHL, Adobe, MTV, Four Seasons, Vodafone and Kayak.com—a mix of the established and the new, of the disrupted and the disruptor.

Some clients, once disrupted, have seen extraordinary renewals. IBM is a case in point. Text100 has worked with the company since 2001—when it was still recovering from a hard decade. IBM had enjoyed a long postwar golden age of building massive mainframe computers for governments and corporations (and helping land us on the moon). In 1981 IBM introduced its personal computer, touching off the PC revolution. But by the early nineties, cheaper clones had dramatically cut into IBM’s market share and the company suffered multibillion-dollar losses. In the process, something of the old IBM magic floated away. The company finally sold off its PC division to the Chinese Lenovo (which has since become a Text100 client) in 2005, and focused on software and services—the beginning of its “Smarter Planet” initiative.

Now IBM has a new story to tell. It’s the story of its adventures in artificial intelligence—though it prefers the term “augmented intelligence.” We’ve seen the Watson computing system—named for Greenwich’s late, great Thomas Watson Jr., who brought IBM into the computer age—winning at Jeopardy or talking to Bob Dylan in the famous TV ad: “I can read 800 million pages per second,” Watson boasts to the musician. But asks us to imagine a computer using all available human knowledge to tackle mankind’s toughest problems, from the environment to health care. That’s where IBM and Watson are headed.

“IBM sees the next major era of computing as the Cognitive Era,” Aedhmar says. “Computers can detect patterns. They can assimilate large amounts of information that come from very different places, and begin to see the kinds of themes and trends that a human brain can’t.”

As an example of Watson-style computing, she says, picture a doctor in a developing country having at his fingertips the best new information on a difficult case. “It’s democratizing. The doctor in that developing country could have access to the same information for his patient as a doctor at the Mayo Clinic here in the U.S. It’s the notion of technology and humans together creating extraordinary developments in all disciplines. Health care is just one.” (Others include finance, energy, transportation, and food and water systems.)

Already Watson is revolutionizing medicine by diagnosing cancers and recommending treatments—having absorbed far more research than any physician ever could.

THE TECH GLASS IS HALF FULL
Stories like these make Hynes a tech optimist. If our brave new world has arrived, perhaps it’s bravest in the realm of communications. “Today’s mobile, always-on technology has created enormous opportunity for the entire world to participate, to connect, to learn, to share, to unite,” she says. “It’s changing communications more today than it has in the nearly 200 years since the telegraph demolished distance.”

Interconnectedness has also created no little amount of fear. Aedhmar explains: “Fear that our businesses can be crippled by hackers, our reputations destroyed by the Twittersphere. Fear that, as individuals, we’ll lose all semblance of privacy. Fear that advances in artificial intelligence, deep learning, data mining, robotics all mean that soon machines, not people, will be in control. That in a world of driverless cars and cashless wallets, we are on the path to a soulless, unethical world controlled by computers.”

But Aedhmar rejects this worldview. Technology itself may be neutral, but history shows that we prefer to use it for good. Of the digital revolution, she says, “it puts power in the hands of the people.” Dramatic examples of digital empowerment—on Facebook pages and Twitter accounts—include raising huge sums instantly for disaster relief, organizing movements and marches, uploading videos of police shootings or police heroics, and reporting government abuses in real time from countries led by repressive regimes.

In PR, too, the ramifications are enormous. Brands must be at their best. Once upon a time—not so long ago—a brand had almost total control in defining itself. But in a flat world, one in which we can all “see” one another digitally, that top-down order has crumbled. Today’s customers talk to one another on social and digital media, and thus do a fair amount of the defining themselves. Of course, that sort of democracy cuts both ways: Customers can be your most damning critics or your most faithful allies.

“Your constituents have as much control over your brand as you do yourself,” Aedhmar says. “You are no longer in control. You’re no longer at arms’ length from your customers. But it really works in your favor if you’re delivering a consistent, authentic narrative—and you live it.”

More broadly, though, Aedhmar is distressed by the injection of false narratives into the public sphere. It’s poisonous in our political life and it would be poisonous in our business life. “There is a tremendous debate taking place right now over the future of communications,” she says. “The looming question seems to be if we’ve entered a post-truth, post-factual era, in which what matters is simply who has the megaphone.”

True to her nature, she believes this historical cloud will pass—that “the big lie” repeated until it feels true is unsustainable whether the brand is political or corporate. “The arc of history shows that inconsistencies, mistruths, will ultimately be found out,” she says. “Now faster than ever.”

Here you understand that Aedhmar views communications as a kind of calling, a moral imperative. “We carry a special responsibility to treat words as if they were currency,” she says of herself and her peers. “Because words have immense power. Storytelling is as old as humankind, and since we first began to speak, we have used words to break down the barriers that stand between people.”

 

 

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