After some of the nightmarish headlines that have made the news over the past several years, most PR professionals would probably rather not think about a situation where their client’s technology systems broke down. For just a moment, though, Adrian Ma would like you to imagine the crisis communications plan that might unfold.
Think of a government where the software that helps public transport vehicles navigate through busy streets suddenly died, for example, or a bank whose payment app leaked account information. Or, worst of all, put yourself in the shoes of a PR agency or corporate comms team faced with a hacker attack where customer data is stolen — and all the reporting and commentary that would go along with it. According to Ma, managing director of BIGfish PR in the U.K., this is where technologies like artificial intelligence (AI) could be treated as an invaluable tool, rather than a source of disruption.
“If you’re dealing with a big, unfolding issue like a large IT failure that affects millions of people, AI can help filter the really important signals very quickly,” he says. “It can make you more agile, especially when it comes to things like comment monitoring and social monitoring. It means you could escalate critical pieces of data really quickly.”
This is an area Ma has not only been thinking about, but also speaking about. In May, for instance, he was part of a panel discussion called ‘How Will New Technologies Impact PR,’ which included a discussion on whether AI is a threat or an asset. While AI could be used to automate reporting and assist in content discovery or even creating content, Ma says his peers are largely ignoring the technology’s potential.
“The PR industry is lagging massively in these areas,” he says, adding that this failure to weave technology into their work not only applies to the agency world but many corporate comms teams within brands as well. “From what I’ve seen, they just don’t have these processes in place.”
Embrace AI’s Growing Impact on Industries
To those in other industries or functional areas of business, this might seem surprising, given the hype around AI to transform sales, HR and even other areas of marketing. Part of it may stem from the fact that AI can refer to a number of disparate technologies, from natural language processing (NLP) to machine learning, and more. To some extent, however, experts say it may be the sign of a profession reluctant to face the kind of disruption that has affected other roles — and entire industries.
“You’re talking about a category of people who don’t like math or science. These are the people who went to school and studied art or journalism,” half-joked Jonathan Litwack, director of experience design for Toronto-based Bensimon Byrne, One Method and Narrative PR. “If that’s your background, your natural inclination will be to steer away from analytics and AI.”
Litwack doesn’t want to insult the PR industry, but in previous roles such as vice-president of marketing technology at National PR and elsewhere, he says he has seen first-hand the challenge of bridging the gap between the “art” side of PR/corporate comms and the science that AI technologies can unleash. The one thing he’s sure of is how wide-ranging the impact of AI will be.
“Anything that seems mundane has the opportunity to be disrupted by AI,” he said. “It includes any of those things that you would ordinarily pay a coordinator, an intern or a junior-level person to stare at.”
This doesn’t mean that those in PR need to fear for their jobs, as is often the case in discussions about AI. A study from consulting firm McKinsey, for example, suggested there will be very little percentage change in PR-related skills and roles due to automation between now and 2030. Although the report didn’t specifically call out PR or corporate comms, “creatives” — which McKinsey said included media workers — would only change eight percent, while “professionals,” which it said included account managers, is set for an 11 percent shift.
“There are so many parts of the PR job which are so difficult for AI to replicate,” says Ma. These include building relationships and creativity, though he suggests the technology could assist and augment some of that work too. “Good creativity is grounded in insights. That’s where AI can come in.”
“I think the people who have to worry about their jobs are the ones where someone could write an Excel script to automate the work you do,” Litwack added. “If all you do is add numbers together, you’re in trouble, but you probably already know that. It’s more that people should be excited they don’t have to spend 25 percent of their day doing those menial tasks.”
Proactively React With PR Analytics Tools
PR pros can get ahead of disruption by thinking about the analytics tools at their disposal today and creative ways to combine them to offer quantifiable results for their work, Litwack suggests.
“I think a lot comes in how you connect those tools together or bring those sets of data and compare them,” he says. “I’m a huge proponent of using Cision data with Google data, because now you’re using Cision to understand your upper funnel and Google for your mid-funnel and bottom funnel.”
Ma agrees, suggesting that the change management aspects of introducing AI can be easier when you appoint an internal champion who gets deep training and helps the rest of the team. BIGfish has taken that approach with many other technology products and services, he says, including Cision Comms Cloud.
Ma also notes that while few AI tools have been specifically developed or targeted at PR and corporate comms, people in those roles today can think through what they could apply right now.
“Where we’re seeing innovation is not in PR but on the fringes where PR crosses over into other disciplines,” Ma says. “The best thing to do is to think of yourself as a T-shaped marketer — where you have a broad understanding of lots of marketing disciplines but a deep understanding of PR.”