There’s no getting away from the fact Artificial Intelligence is trending, everywhere, right across the world. Just as ‘computers’ and ‘the Internet’ were once bywords for the unseeable, unknowable future, ‘AI’ is 2018’s buzzword. But are we being overly anxious to think we’re going to be affected by it in the PR and communications industry?

Some of us are probably working with various industries that have begun to openly discuss the implications upon its workforce labour. The highs include the happy abandonment of mundane tasks for more evolved ones, especially in the more automated industries such as car production and manufacturing, but also in typically human-led ones like the banking sector.

As a result, perhaps we’ve even begun to suss that AI will somehow slide into every corner of humans’ lives including ours at some point? So how will we see transformation emerging in our working lives as PR professionals?

Before we take a look at the findings of a seminal discussion paper on AI and its impact on the PR and communications industry, published by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) in May, let’s quickly remind ourselves about what AI is – and isn’t.

First, don’t be tempted to think that AI refers to any process that makes humans’ lives easier. As the report says: “All AI tools use technology but not all tech is AI.” Frustratingly, the acronym has become shorthand to relate to almost anything that does this but in truth, AI is the application of sophisticated technology that can deliver the same (or better) results produced by humans or mimic their cognitive functions such as learning, analysis and problem solving. So, ‘can we be replaced by machines?’ is a reasonable question to ask.

In its first paper to refer to the subject, ‘Humans Still Needed: An Analysis of Skills and Tools in Public Relations’, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) says yes, there are already 12% of PR skills that can already be undertaken or significantly enhanced by artificial intelligence – a figure they believe is likely to increase in varying degrees during the next five years.

The report explores the impact of technology – specifically AI – on our industry, which, it says, can be seen in:

  • The simplification of tasks –  a piece of technology that simplifies a PR process, or provides a tactical service such as databases or wire services. The reviewers scored this as 6% present today
  • Listening and monitoring – media and social media listening and monitoring tools, currently, reviewers saw this as being 8% present today
  • Automation (of tactical tasks such as open data formats), 17% present
  • AI for structured data, (machine intelligence applied to structured data like Google Analytics) 12% now with a view to increasing to 38% in the next five years
  • AI for unstructured data, (machine intelligence applied to unstructured data such as IQ Bot). 12% now with a view to increasing to 38% in the next five years

The last two categories are, the report says, at the very heart of AI today.

“We can create and curate content with automated and predictive technology. We can identify trends, track issues and generate reports and presentations. Chatbots are becoming prevalent and can learn and improve on their own. We can filter through data and process large amount of information which frees up time for more intellectual tasks, creativity and reflection.”

And this is one of the balancing observations about AI because, while there will always be tasks and skills that can be automated or benefit from AI, there will always be a need for human intervention, editing, sensitivity, emotional intelligence, applying good judgement and ethics.

It goes on to say that a further 27% of our skill sets benefit from the support of some technology to support us in tasks requiring analysis and decision-making. In five years, it is highly likely that these specific areas of practice will undergo radical transformation with the introduction of even more technology assistance although it will require human oversight.

The AI panel that worked on the research used a simplified version of the Global Alliance Global Body of Knowledge (GBOK)2, which describes over 50 skills and abilities needed to practise public relations. The report uses two excellent diagrams to demonstrate the impact of technology on our practice currently and in five years’ time – and at just 12 pages long it’s worth making the time to read it.

“What surprised me is that reviewers on our project had widely different experiences and familiarity with AI,” says Jean Valin, the report’s author and principal at Valin Strategic Communications and co-editor of Public Relations Case Studies from Around the World.

“It is such a hyped term. Not all tech is AI, yet suppliers call it AI powered. We found a wide range of tech but very few had AI in the tools that were listed against our skill set.”

As for the sort of tasks that are likely too see an increase in AI assistance and may one day become a skill long gone, Valin deals a blow to the PR practitioners who enjoy writing and their industry colleagues, copywriters.

“Most entry level tasks are at risk of being replaced by AI or at the very least assisted by AI. It is unclear to me if this will mean jobs will be eliminated or unskilled. One skill at entry or mid career that will be increasingly assisted by AI is writing. However, editing will always need humans. I see most, but not all, of the research, analysis and forecasting, community identification and so on being replaced by AI tools.”

The report itself also references strategic planning and social media relations as experiencing the biggest impact of AI. It says: “According to SOTP, which also assesses skill strengths and weaknesses, it is in the domain of social media relations that public relations needs the most help from AI.

“AI can be incredibly useful, but if it is used without complementing human awareness, it can be detrimental. We need humans to think creatively and abstractly about problems to devise new and innovative strategies, test out different approaches and look to the future. Parts of what we do – or in some cases entire tasks – are, or will be, automated and will benefit from AI.”

As for ethics, the one human skill that’s identified as always requiring to take the lead and remain in control of PR practice, Valin isn’t suggesting otherwise but does say that there will be times when situations might benefit from an injection of well-programmed AI.

“It would be surprising if AI had been used by Bell Pottinger in South Africa to proof their strategy,” he says. “Humans did that. However, I keep reading that IBM Watson, for example, could have spotted this breach of ethics. Personally, I probably doubt that but honestly, I am like most practitioners and have limited exposure to true AI tools.

“Ethics, in my opinion is not an area for automatic machine learning. It can assist us and humans need to make the final call – right or wrong – and live with the consequences. Ethical practice will remain a key differentiator between good and bad practice.”

And overall, what about the incumbents heading into training and university degrees? Do they have a bright future in our industry or should they start considering other outlets for their passion to communicate?

“Good professionals follow their passion regardless of techno promises and my advice is follow your passion,” Valin concludes. “That being said, I would say that even though areas like audience identification, analysis and tracking can be done by AI, humans still need to interpret the data, read the context, apply emotional intelligence and interpret humour and sarcasm.

“AI could get there one day, but I think it is best that humans dominate in these areas.”

Ultimately, the report is embracing of the potential that AI can contribute to our industry assuming there are some areas, like ethics and interpretation of analysis and behaviour, editing, applying judgement and experiential learning that are left to the humans. And these are skills that are widely valued – and are likely to remain so. AI is about to have a monumental impact upon our lives.

It does highlight the need to understand how AI can prove to be potentially damaging so we can avoid pitfalls. And given the transformation, it is our responsibility as an industry to to keep ahead of the curve. We need to play with these tools and ensure we’re reading reviews to learn how to optimise them while also being mindful of limitations.

Ethically, there will never be a time, the report says, that as humans we can let our guard down around ethics and need to remain vigilant in numerous practice areas. For instance, as the rise – and facilitation – of using data becomes more commonplace, we need to safeguard against privacy breaches and be mindful that our licence to operate comes with behaviours that place the public interest above organisation or client. It closes by saying:

“Ethics will continue to be the dominant differentiator in the professional practice of public relations. And that is a good thing.