How automation and AI could lead to a PR nightmare

by | Feb 18, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

Here’s a cliché for you: technology is revolutionizing PR.

It’s true, of course, like every cliché. Just in the last month, Bulldog Reporter has written about how visual search is disrupting retail, why automation in marketing will change the sector entirely, and highlighted the fact that brands are struggling with personalization and security challenges.

Artificial Intelligence is going to be the next big challenge for PR professionals. Many analysts have noted that the technology has the potential to disrupt the very roots of the industry by replacing human marketers with robots.

In this article, let’s take a look behind the headlines and the clichés. The bad news is that it’s true that AI might replace some PR professionals; in fact, it really already has. The other piece of bad news is that there is another downside to AI that is not often mentioned: these machines “going rogue” and creating controversy all by themselves.

But it’s not all bad news. If handled correctly, AI and automation can bring huge benefits to the industry. We just need to learn to work with the machines, and not see them as our competition.

Replaced by robots

A quick scan of the headlines related to “AI in PR” is enough to get a real sense of fear in the industry. AI, it is claimed, will soon be able to autonomously identify new customer demographics, instantly craft personalized messages for them, and then rigorously assess the outcome of these processes.

How automation and AI could lead to a PR nightmare

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Some of the research done in this area appears to confirm that – McKinsey Digital estimates that around 45 percent of paid activities could be replaced with technologies that are currently under development.

A deeper look at the statistics, though, reveals that the situation is not quite so simple. AI will eliminate some jobs, but it will create others. Campaign managers will increasingly be expected to manage AIs, rather than researching audiences and crafting content by themselves.

In addition, it’s unlikely that managerial staff will be replaced by robots any time soon: research done by Replaced by Robot indicates that while PR account executives have an 18 percent chance of being replaced by computers in the next 20 years, PR directors have a 1.5 percent chance.

This is largely because there are some things that AIs will never be able to do effectively. Building a personal relationship with your customers, and the more complex aspects of reputation management, require a human touch. Because of this, the creative side of advertising and PR will likely remain human activities in the coming decades.

Rogue AI

There is another way in which some in the industry fear that AIs could cause a PR nightmare. As we cede more and more power to machines, there is a real risk that they will go “rogue” and create controversy all by themselves.

Many of the key systems that PR professionals rely on now include AI as an inherent part of their operation. Outreach and ad targeting software has long been informed by AI, but now even web hosts and CMS platforms are making use of it. In this context, human oversight of the activities of these systems has been dramatically reduced.

As AI becomes more and more common, it’s not hard to imagine a situation where AI-driven software is charged with designing customer messaging, and then sending it to customers, without human intervention. The problem with this is that AIs occasionally get it very wrong, and could disseminate damaging content. That’s why some researchers are warning companies that their AIs might be racist or sexist, and why human oversight is still needed.

Even with this oversight, however, it’s likely that AIs are going to cause controversy. Rising consumer concerns about privacy mean that many people are hesitant to have their data stored and used by AIs. In fact, many consumers are uncomfortable with the level of information that large companies collect from them anyway, but these worries are compounded when it is a machine, and not a fellow human, looking at these data.

Working together

These dual concerns require that marketers and PR professionals need to change their approach to automation and AI. At the moment, many in the industry fear that they will be replaced by robots, or that giving AIs too much power will adversely affect their brand.

One solution to these difficulties is to recognize the sheer variety of tasks that the average marketer is expected to perform. It’s true that audience research and targeted ad dissemination can be done more quickly by smart, automated systems.

On the other hand, there are many other tasks—such writing creative ad copy or talking to customers and clients—in which humans excel.

This gives rise to a simple solution: instead of seeing AI as a threat to the industry, we should embrace AIs as colleagues, and find ways of leveraging the strengths of both machines and humans in a hybrid intelligence system.

How automation and AI could lead to a PR nightmare

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This hybrid approach is likely to have an impact on every aspect of marketing and PR in the coming decades. It may well be, for instance, that humans and AIs end up specializing in paid and organic search traffic respectively.

AIs are good at placing ads tailored to specific audiences, which makes them an excellent tool for managing paid ad campaigns. On the other hand, humans are great at crafting truly creative copy, which is still the most effective way of increasing organic search traffic.

AI and automation will be both a blessing and a curse for the PR industry. Given the efficacy of AI tools in automating specific parts of the PR business cycle, firms will need to create a successful marketing automation strategy merely in order to stay competitive. On the other hand, unleashing the power of AI and automation must be done carefully, lest it give rise to the problems above.

PR firms should also not regard AI and automation tools as a replacement for highly-trained marketing staff. Instead, these staff should be trained in how to use these new technologies in their own work. Equally, PR firms need to keep their AI systems on a tight leash, and ensure that there is human oversight over their activities.

The bottom line

Ultimately, the rise of AI in PR can be seen as analogous to an earlier revolution: that of IT. Twenty years ago, many graphic designers were worried that desktop publishing would make them obsolete. That did not happen, of course.

Instead, designers enthusiastically embraced the power of desktop publishing and design software, to the extent that it is now impossible to imagine the industry without it. The same process will likely occur with AI and automation tools.

Gary Stevens
Gary Stevens is a front end developer. He's a full time blockchain geek and a volunteer working for the Ethereum foundation as well as an active Github contributor.