Why PR professionals cannot be replaced by AI and automation

by | Jun 15, 2020 | Analysis, Public Relations

As a PR professional, you might be growing a little tired of the continuous stream of headlines that claim that AI is poised to revolutionize marketing.

Some—and especially those who have a vested interest in AI (Artificial Intelligence) and ML (Machine Learning)—claim that it is only a matter of time. Once AI systems reach a critical level of “intelligence”, they say, these systems will be genuinely useful, and will eventually come to replace humans in many different fields.

Others have a more nuanced view, in which AI will both help and hinder us. For instance, AI is leading to new types of cybercrime, but at the same time improving cybersecurity.

There is another side to the story, though. While AI may be a good fit for some professions, this is not true across the board. At first glance, the PR industry appears to be an excellent candidate for the application of these technologies—it is now largely online, and requires huge amounts of data processing.

Look a little closer, however, and you’ll see that PR pros are not going to be replaced by robots anytime soon.

In this article, we’ll explain why.

1. Understanding people

First, let’s look at the research. A recent study by Oxford University looked at how likely it is that certain jobs would be replaced by AIs within the next 20 years. They found an 18% probability that PR specialists will eventually suffer this fate.

This relatively low probability can be explained by reminding ourselves what PR professionals actually do. While it can sometimes seem that our jobs are increasingly devoted to managing customer queries and crunching data on the success of our outreach campaigns, it pays to remember that our job is about far more than that.

PR, at its heart, is about understanding people. And despite years of research, it’s still impossible for AIs to pass the Turing Test—a measure of how “human like” they can appear in conversation—whereas (most) of the PR professionals we know can not only pass for real life humans, but can do a lot more.

The value that PR pros bring to the organizations they work for is not technical knowledge about how to do effective SEO, but an inherently human ability to understand the needs of the businesses they work with, and engage with them on a personal and emotional level.

2. The shock of the new

Secondly, the best PR professionals are identifiable not by their ability to process huge amounts of data, but instead by their creativity.

Every now and again, there appears a news story about an AI producing creative work of a high standard—the latest has been an ML program that was shortlisted for a short story competition in Japan—but the fact that these stories still make the news tells you everything you need to know about how often this occurs.

In other words, it’s still far from clear that AIs will be able to think creatively any time in the near future. For this reason alone, they may never be better than humans at designing genuinely new campaigns or writing press releases. Both require a creative approach to find a new angle on an existing product, or to understand what parts of a story will actually resonate with our fellow humans.

Beyond the advances made by Machine Learning (ML) and Artificial Intelligence (AI) and giving rise to an enormous amount of hype and automating several business processes, few if any of us have seen these technologies make any real difference to our day-to-day work.

In other words, the real business value of AI remains elusive.

If any further proof of this is needed, just look at some of the PR disasters that have been caused by AIs attempting to create their own content without the aid of their human co-workers.

3. Collaboration, not competition

All this said, perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on the poor AIs. In fact, many of us are already working alongside them. AI and ML systems are, in fact, already well integrated into the PR landscape, whether in streamlining marketing automation or checking our press releases for mistakes (that’s right, Grammarly is also an AI program).

And it is this last point that is the surest refutation of the idea that AIs will replace human PR pros anytime soon. We are already working alongside AI and ML “colleagues”, but we would never let our spell checker design an ad campaign.

Instead, the future is likely to be one where human PR professionals work collaboratively with AI tools, rather than being replaced by them. An example is how AI is being used in major email marketing services such as Automizy, Constant Contact, and Mailchimp. Even though AI might help us to design an email outreach campaign, the content of these emails will still be written by a human, because they will be read by a human.

4. The bottom line

Ultimately, the degree to which AIs come to replace the tasks currently undertaken by PR pros will depend on the logic of the market. As soon as it becomes cheaper, or more profitable, to use an AI for PR, we can begin to fear that we might soon be out of a job.

That’s not going to happen anytime soon, however, despite fears about the dark side of AI. Instead of replacing humans, AIs will continue to be used to make the boring parts of our day less so, and to give us more time to focus on the important parts of our work: connecting with fellow humans, and exercising our creativity.

Dan Fries
Dan Fries is Founding Partner at Lakeview Capital in Hong Kong.