By Chris Lee
With the House of Lords having reported in the opportunities and threats posed by artificial intelligence (AI), I have asked what my sector – the PR industry – is doing in anticipation of AI’s rise. Are the machines really coming for our jobs or will AI free us up from our time-consuming tasks so we can focus on our core strength: creativity.
On 16 April, the House of Lords released its Select Committee report on the impact of AI on British life. For context, the definition of AI that it followed was; “Technologies with the ability to perform tasks that would otherwise require human intelligence, such as visual perception, speech recognition and language translation.”
The impact of AI on jobs, in particular, is something that has caused much discussion in recent years. One estimate says 900,000 London jobs are at risk from automation and globalisation by 2030, but on the upside, the capital is well-placed to draw on the new jobs this technology will bring.
Lessons from history
In the early 19th century, a group of skilled English textile workers destroyed weaving machinery in protest, out of a fear that the Industrial Revolution would replace their skills. In modern lexicon we know this group as the Luddites and it is a term often used for technophobes opposed to change. In the end, the machines of the Industrial Revolution generated work, creating greater productivity through automation of time-intensive tasks, rather than putting people out of work.
My view is that AI will do the same for the PR industry, where a lot of our work is time-intensive – such as data gathering, crunching and interpretation. We work in a people business, and much is based on relationships, but we are seeing automation creep into PR’s chief target: the press. For example, the Press Association discussed the automated creation of sports and news stories back in 2016.
AI and PR
So how with AI affect the PR industry and what is it doing in preparation?
Stephen Waddington is Partner and Chief Engagement Officer at PR consultancy, Ketchum, and Chair of the artificial intelligence panel at industry body, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR).
“The conversation about artificial intelligence in public relations is polarised between denial and techno panic,” Waddington tells me.
A panel at the CIPR is attempting to understand what’s actually going on in the market and has crowdsourced a list of more than 150 third-party tools.
“But here’s the thing. Very few of the tools could be defined as applications of machine learning and therefore artificial intelligence,” Waddington continues. “Instead they’re helping us work more efficiently by automating a laborious task such as reporting, or they’re enabling us to work smarter by crunching through large amounts data to uncover insights in applications such as listening and monitoring.”
Waddington adds that he has no doubt that technology, and in time artificial intelligence, will have an impact on public relations, as it is on every other profession.
“There are manual and repetitive tasks that will undoubtedly be automated. As we’ve seen it’s already happening,” he concludes. “But it’s difficult to foresee the day when skills such as emotional analysis, public speaking, mentoring, pitching or ethical analysis will be taken on by robots.”
Adapting to Change
Both the CIPR and fellow industry body, the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) are monitoring closely the potential impact of AI on the PR industry.
“There are many ways in which PR may be impacted by AI: from simple content writing and personalisation of automated communications, to complex crisis management modelling,” the PRCA’s Deputy Director General, Matt Cartmell, tells me. “But to capitalise on these exciting developments, the PR industry needs to continue in its never-ending diversification of talent by training and recruiting AI specialists of its own. AI can help PR to grow as an industry – as indeed PR has previously used many other tech developments to grow its market share. But to avoid being dismantled by AI, the sector needs to understand and embrace this emerging technology quickly and in great depth.”
So, we can conclude that, as the Select Committee report finds about the UK economy as a whole, many jobs within the PR industry will be enhanced, some will disappear, and many new – as yet unknown – roles will be created.
The PR industry will need to adapt its skills set to capitalise on the opportunities but at the end of the day, we are still a very human-to-human industry. As a senior PR practitioner I saw speak once said; “data never had an idea.”
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