Optimism in the face of adversity?

Updated: Oct 28, 2018

The Annual PRCA Fellows’ Debate on Artificial Intelligence has revealed an overwhelming optimism among practitioners about the impact of AI on the future of the PR industry. I summarise key learnings from the event and why I fear the profession will get left behind.

Last week’s debate hosted at Richmond University explored the implications of AI for the PR industry in regard to the following motion:

"The workforce in public relations will considerably reduce as a result of Artificial Intelligence and automation."

A compelling mix of arguments were put forward by industry experts on both sides of the debate, before an audience of practitioners were invited to vote on the motion. Those arguing in favour included Stephen Waddington (Partner and Chief Engagement Officer, Ketchum), Jane Howard (Partner, Reputability) and Simon Goldsworthy (Professor PR and Advertising, Richmond University), while Katie King (MD, Zoodikers), Brandy Fleming (Managing Director & Senior Partner, FleishmanHillard Fishburn) and Iain Anderson (Executive Chairman, Cicero) countered against.

Staggeringly, more than three quarters of the room sided with the latter group, viewing cuts to the public relations workforce as a result of AI with unwavering scepticism. So what does this mean other than we're a surprisingly optimistic bunch?

PR as a ‘special case’

Stephen Waddington kicked off proceedings by declaring that the PR industry has had its ‘head in the sand’ when it comes to AI. Caught between ‘denial’ and ‘techno panic’, he argued PR naively views itself as a special case in the AI revolution thanks to its reputation as a relationship business. A naivety made all the more obvious by the abundance of AI tools already in existence, from social media algorithms and targeted ads to automated news releases and chat bots.

This sentiment was echoed by fellow panel member Simon Goldsworthy. He agreed PR cannot continue to believe it is exempt from the impact of AI, when technological advances have already decimated newsrooms around the world. He also argued the future social value of the profession will not be determined by headcount but rather the contribution PR makes in the age of AI and machine learning.

AI is still in an exploratory phase

Bringing an insight-led perspective borne out of extensive research for her upcoming book (Using Artifical Intelligence in Marketing), Katie King emphasised AI’s many teething problems. Still in an exploratory phase, King explained AI technology is neither strategic nor consistent enough to threaten PR in the short term.

Pointing to the examples of racial bias in airport screening and gender stereotyping in online search algorithms, Brandy Fleming argued AI will inherit the flaws of its human creators. For me, this promises a more credible future for the industry in supporting the ethical use of data.

Entry-level roles are most under threat

Getting down to the crux of the evening’s debate, Jane Howard discussed the ability of AI to provide large-scale and patterned insights. Insights set to make research duties at the bottom of the PR pyramid redundant by 2023. She warned of a future in which data analysts call the shots as part of newly-formed AI departments, and why not? We’ve already had GDPR teams.

There was also significant debate over which roles would be hardest hit by AI. Though the general consensus pointed to those at a junior level. In a bottom-heavy industry, particularly within the consultancy landscape, it’s worrying this alone hasn’t sounded the alarm bells.

Entry level roles might be the first to go, but Howard predicts analyst and campaign support roles will soon follow. The start of a chain reaction that will extend throughout the PR pipeline.

It’s not all doom and gloom

But it’s not all doom and gloom. This year’s CIPR State of the Profession report revealed the sector as a whole is growing. In fact, the number of PR practitioners has increased 22% over the last four years.

Artificial intelligence has the potential to unlock yet more growth. The flaws of AI technology will provide new ways for PRs to provide added value - training these systems to recognise cultural differences and the subtleties of human interaction.

Indeed, King discussed a future of ‘augmented’ rather than artificial intelligence in which AI will enhance rather than replace the PR arsenal. I agree integrating these tools will help us work smarter, be more accurate in our insights and more robust in our measurement.

When it comes to driving innovation in the sector, I’m less optimistic. As Stephen Waddington recalled, PR has a poor track record on this front - missing the boat when it came to SEO and paid social media. If last week’s vote is anything to go by, we’re set to be flailing in the water again.

Closing arguments

Peculiarly, the audience lamented over the lack of time frame and use of the term ‘considerably’ in the tabled motion. I couldn’t help but leave with a fear we risk getting bogged down in the letter of the law rather than the spirit.

In a passionate and colourful defence against the motion, Iain Anderson closed the debate by citing the words of David Bowie – Tomorrow belongs to those who can hear it...

It’s a shame then PR isn’t listening.

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