The Debate About #AIinPR Is Just Getting Started

CIPR #AiPR Tools Stack Artificial Intelligence

Six months on from the CIPR’s #AIinPR panel’s establishment, the conversations about how technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning may impact the practice of public relations are only just getting started. As we head in to the second half of the year expect to hear much more about the kind of changes we’re likely to see as a result of these technologies gaining a foothold in our day-to-day lives.

When the Chartered Institute of Public Relations launched the #AIinPR Panel earlier this year, we aimed to explore the impact of artificial intelligence on communications and to start a debate about what this all means for our industry, businesses, clients, and careers.

I think it is safe to say we have done that.

What has #AIinPR ever done for us?

In recent months the panel has met a number of times to discuss one of the most interesting challenges facing business today, and have published work in a number of areas.

Firstly, we explored some of the areas where AI is already being used by communications professionals, taking a look at the stack of tools PR practitioners are using and what kinds of technology powered these applications.

We looked at some of the thinking influencing Government policy, and aired our views on how proposed legislation may impact the development and adoption of AI, ensuring the PR industry’s voice was heard when many national and supranational strategies and policies were being introduced.

We’ve spoken at several events and conferences and also published a piece of research work, led by Jean Valin, which focused on the near-term impact of technologies like AI on public relations practice, and particularly on skills in the profession over the next five years.

This report, which has been well-received by the industry, found that 12% of a public relations practitioner’s total skills (from the 52 skills outlined in Global Alliance’s GBOK project – PDF) could either be augmented or even replaced by some form of AI today. It also predicted that within five years this figure could rise to 38%.

Our early work and this research certainly sparked conversations. The #AIinPR hashtag is a permanent fixture in my Tweetdeck dashboard, and often a source of lively debate. Likewise we’ve seen several reactions from fellow practitioners, academics, and even vendors, from people like John Brown, Dan Slee, David Philips, Paul Sutton, and Joanna Arnold among many others.

In recent months we’ve seen AI evolve from something only a handful of people in the PR industry discussed, to a hot topic on the agenda in Cannes, and feature much more prominently in PR blogs and the industry’s trade media.

OK Google: “What might #AIinPR do for us in the future?”

In the coming months you can expect to see much more debate about the impact of #AIinPR, both from the panel and the wider industry. Now the conversation has started, and new voices are brought into the discussion, we’ll start to see real debate, not just assertions that go relatively unchallenged.

As practitioners become more knowledgeable and the adoption of technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning increases, these conversations become much more informed and rooted in reality, rather than ‘finger in the air’ predictions from those with vested interests.

Having been involved in the CIPR #AIinPR panel and some of the conversations preceding its foundation, I’ve been following this area for some time.

I wrote a short piece in what PR might look like in 2020 for the PRCA a couple of years’ ago (in my fresher-faced days) and more recently looked at the impact of AI and other emerging technologies on our industry and practice.

However, this is a conversation moving at some pace and continuously evolving. I think I’m probably one of those ‘Pareto Parasites’ guilty of spending too much time gorging on others’ content and as such not producing much myself. I’m going to try to rectify that over the second half of the year and publish more of my thinking as we continue to see more developments and more debate.

In any case, the #AIinPR panel will certainly be out and about and talking about this work and this topic for the foreseeable future. We still have one of our stated projects to deliver and plan to pop up at a number of events throughout the remainder of 2018 and you can always find us on Twitter, highlighting some of the latest news and views via #AIinPR.

We’re also open to suggestions, so if you have an idea, event or something else you’d like one of the panel to take a look at feel free to get touch with us – details of all the panellists can be found on the CIPR’s website.

The big questions

With that in mind I think there are some very interesting conversations to be had as artificial intelligence becomes more commonplace in marketing and communications.

Learning and development

We’re currently seeing some very interesting tools and applications find their way into the marketplace. Practitioners who commit to upskilling and professional development and are able to use them effectively are valuable assets to their teams and clients. There’s a real discussion to be had about how education and training can keep up with the pace of change and ensure that practitioners are well-placed to counsel clients and teams to deliver results.

As my Ketchum colleague and #AIinPR panel chair, Stephen Waddington highlighted on his blog, the PR profession “doesn’t have a good track record when it comes to innovation at scale”, pointing to communications professionals failure to notice the opportunities that came with the rise of SEO and social media until entire industries had been built around them to steal PR’s lunch.

It will be crucial to make sure this does not happen again with the opportunities artificial intelligence and machine learning bring.

Ethics

This is an interesting discussion, and probably one of the most hotly debated areas next to technological displacement and automation of roles. The question of whether robots can interpret and express emotions have been long pondered, indeed Philip K Dick explored the notion in his 1968 work Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep.

The CIPR-led research mentioned earlier touches briefly on this, citing ethics as one of the key areas of public relations practice – alongside skills such as emotional intelligence – that will often, if not always, still require predominantly human input.

This, I think rightly, resulted in robust debates from some practitioners and academics who looked at some recent thinking and advances in AI development that point to some systems that do show some promise in so-called ‘affective computing’ – the ability to recognise, interpret, process, and simulate human affects or emotions.

Where we draw the boundaries of algorithmic decision-making, where we necessitate human input, and how we hold the actions of AI-driven applications accountable to ethical standards is a conversation that will run and run, particularly in an industry that places such high importance on it as our own. I think this is an area where many industries and PR in particular will tread lightly when it comes to rolling out AI – while I don’t subscribe to the view that these areas cannot be automated or impacted by AI, I do think it will be one of the last areas to be affected by machine intelligence technologies.

Jobs

A recent event I attended gave interesting insights into the thinking of the industry and particularly senior practitioners who argued on both sides of an Oxford Union-style debate.

This was the Annual PRCA Fellows’ Debate which this year explored the motion, “The workforce in public relations will considerably reduce as a result of Artificial Intelligence and automation.”

Claire Simpson does a good job of summarising the evening on her blog, so I won’t repeat it, but there is a very real conversation to be had about AI’s impact on jobs, in our industry and others. On the night I voted against the motion, partly due to the lack of a specified timeframe, but also because I think artificial intelligence brings as many opportunities as it does risks, and the definition of public relations is suitably broad and fluid to allow for a relatively stable PR workforce over the coming two decades. While there will be peaks and troughs in our total headcount I don’t envision a mass extinction event or Cambrian explosion as a result of technology or any other externality.

Again this is not a conversation going away any time soon and many industries are grappling with it, how this impacts the industry and the career paths and types of roles within it still remains to be seen.

Get involved

As one of the members of the #AIinPR panel, I may be biased, but I think that this is a particularly interesting field to look at. The world is rapidly changing, and communications with it. Technology is one of the key drivers of that change and if we’re not quick to embrace it the opportunities will pass us by and we’ll be left exposed to the risks.

My advice to all practitioners is to start reading about these new emerging tools and technologies, start experimenting with them and working out which can help you deliver on your communications and business objectives, and be open and agile to change.

A good place to start would be to join in the conversation around #AIinPR with me and other members of the CIPR AI panel in an upcoming Twitter chat on Tuesday, June 3rd at 12 noon BST using the hashtag #CIPRChat.

Matt Silver

CIPR accredited corporate reputation consultant at Ketchum with an interest in emerging technologies, social business, politics and policy. Fond of fine food and drink. Member of PRCA & CIPR #AIinPR panel.