Automation was ranked a lowly 11th out of 11 in a list of the challenges facing the PR industry in this year’s CIPR State of the Profession report. And yet in the same report, in the list of activities most commonly undertaken, three of the top five factors were copywriting/editing, media relations and social media relations, all of which are at very high risk of automation.
Something doesn’t add up.
In the second episode of the Digital Download podcast in January of this year, CIPR President Sarah Hall said that “if we don’t become the strategic consultant, we are going to find that a third, possibly a half of our industry could we wiped out very easily through automation”.
But amid the 34+ sessions at PR Week’s PR360 conference this year there’s not a single one about automation or AI. Not one. The conference website doesn’t even mention it!
So what’s going on? Why do we not see AI technology as a threat when much of what we currently do will soon be able to be done my machines? Do we simply not believe that?
Ignorance is Bliss
My personal belief is that communications professionals have an ‘it’ll never happen to me’ attitude. Because we’ve not encountered AI personally yet, we think our jobs and our agencies are safe. We think that our attention to detail when tracking and analysing the interests of journalists is unbeatable. We don’t think that any robot will ever be able to write with the creativity or humanity that we can.
Well here’s news: it’s not and they already can.
At last year’s Digital Download Live event I showed the audience two extracts of sports commentary, one written by a journalist and one written by a robot, and asked them to identify which was written by the human. About half the room guessed right, which is nothing more than chance.
That was a year ago, which is an age in technological terms. And yet still we choose not to believe what we’re being told.
PR & Communications Jobs Are Under Threat
In November 2017 at the Digital Enterprise Festival I sat and listened open-mouthed to Professor of Robotics & AI Jeremy Wyatt explain how companies like Arria have developed natural language generation tools that empower users to generate written narratives in up to 50 different languages in just seconds based on data that you provide them.
“There will be a massive shift in the types of jobs that are available”, said Wyatt. “The marginal cost of machine learning production is zero, so [things like automated journalism] will be extremely fast to roll out [once the tools are built].”
There is a video of Wyatt’s talk available exclusively to subscribers in the members area of the Digital Download website.
Back in the CIPR State of the Profession report, one of the conclusions was that “public relations faces a long-term challenge to establish sources of value to counter the risks posed by new technology”. Sarah Hall said in the same podcast already referenced (which you can listen to below): “When I read the links and books I was sent in terms of the threat of technology I literally took a deep breath. I really believe we’re sleepwalking into this.”
The CIPR is so concerned by artificial intelligence that in February it set up the #AIinPR panel, led by Chief Engagement Officer at Ketchum Stephen Waddington, with a brief to explore the impact of artificial intelligence on public relations and the wider business community.
I asked Stephen what he makes of the disparity in the CIPR report and the threat to the industry. “In my view, our business needs to take a cold shower and wake up to automation and artificial intelligence”, he said. “An open mind and willingness to continually learn is critical. The discussion around AI is characterised by fear and uncertainty. It’s techno-panic and it isn’t helpful. There aren’t many tools [Ed: currently…] that use AI in PR, but the growing impact of technology in every area of practice is undeniable.”
Machine Learning is Not Science Fiction
Maybe it’s the terminology that we don’t see as a threat. Phrases like ‘robots’ and ‘artificial intelligence’ throw up images of the Terminator. It’s the science fiction we grew up reading about and watching in movies.
Can you picture the Terminator sitting down in front of a laptop writing a news article? No, me neither. But what ‘AI and robots’ refers to is software, not hardware. It’s machine learning and intelligent computer programs. And if deep neural networks are already a reality and quantum computing is now realistically on the horizon, then why on earth should writing a 1500 word article better, quicker and, importantly, much, much cheaper than humans be anything remotely approaching a challenge?
The #AIinPR panel’s initial work is already underway. “An initial project has characterised 95 tools, with more to follow”, explains Stephen. “These tools address almost every area of public relations workflow including research, planning, listening, stakeholder mapping and measurement. Our next project is an assessment of the impact of technology on skills and practice today and in five years’ time based on the Global Alliance Capabilities Framework.”
So what can we do about this challenge?
Take Action NOW
I thoroughly recommend following everything to do with the #AIinPR project.
Stephen will be talking about the initial findings of the panel as well as answering your questions about what you can do to combat the threat of automation at Digital Download Live on 26th April.
If you’re even slightly interested in your future, it’s a unique opportunity to talk directly to him. There are a limited number of tickets available here.
He also urges practitioners to start by “exploring native tools on platforms like Google, Twitter and LinkedIn” and to “explore the third party tool market – seek out tools that automate administration or help you work more efficiently or smarter”.
We’ve watched huge companies like Blockbuster and Toys ‘R’ Us go out of business because they didn’t adapt to the changing technological environment. Is it such a stretch to think that the same could happen to the communications industry?
While the ‘entire industry’ is seriously overstating the case, I don’t believe what Sarah Hall says about “half the industry” is doing so.
Stephen is more circumspect, stating that “there will always be a need for practitioners to help communication with publics irrespective of the medium or channel. That’s the job of public relations”. However, he does also say that “individual organisations and practitioners that fail to adapt will struggle, as they have with every generation of technology.”
So to put it simply, DO NOT BE ONE OF THOSE WHO STRUGGLES.
Pay attention to people like Stephen and Sarah and Gini Dietrich. Seek out their opinions and take opportunities to talk to them about AI. Be open-minded to things you read from specialists outside of PR and think about the implications.
Right now, if you’re going to invest anywhere, it should be in learning as much as you can about things like machine learning and automation and voice recognition. You will thank yourself for it in a couple of years time when everyone else is in panic mode.