AI will be a crucial part of PR, but the industry is nowhere near ready

Posted on November 10, 2016 2:21 pm by | Chatbots | Marketing | Measurement | PR | Technology

Artificial Intelligence and PRChristopher Penn attended World of Watson last month, a conference named for IBM’s question answering (QA) computing system that brought 20,000 people together to learn and share about data and artificial intelligence and how they can transform businesses and industries.

It’s no surprise that Chris, SHIFT Communications’ vice president of Marketing Technology, bought a ticket for the show; Chris is a data geek. What is surprising is that, as far as he could tell, he was the only attendee from a public relations firm.

One non-IBM communicator. Out of 20,000.

Truthfully, it’s no so much surprising as it is unsurprisingly disheartening. PR has been chronically late to new technologies dating back to email and the Web. While the industry is blessed with some visionaries, most firms continue to commit most of their resources to media relations. If you can’t bill for it today, it’s not worth investing in.

As usual, while the PR industry sleeps through the infiltration of AI into our lives, others—including marketing and advertising—are learning it, embracing it, and putting it to work on behalf of their clients. Clients who see want AI to play a part in their efforts will seek help from firms that have the competencies required to execute. Just as a lot of PR work once went to SEO agencies, we stand to be marginalized thanks to our lack of interest in data, analytics, and the technologies that help make the most out of them.

(AI is not the only technology gaining ground at which PR will have to become skilled. The “three realities”—Virtual Reality (VR), Augmented Reality (AR), and Mixed Reality (MR)—will fast become as routine a medium as TV and computer screens. (VR alone is predicted to become a $38 billion industry by 2026.) Advertising executives are already bullish on the Internet of Things. And while blockchain technology probably won’t have a direct impact on how we communicate, we will have to communicate about it as it disrupts institutions and industries.)

Of all these technologies, it’s AI that will have the biggest impact on PR since social media (another development that eluded the industry for several years). In fact, according to a survey of chief marketing officers, AI will have a bigger impact than social media. The Weber Shandwick survey found 55% of CMOs believe AI will transform marketing and communications to a greater degree than social media has; Sixty percent believe companies will have no choice but to compete in the AI space within the next five years in order to have any chance of survival.

Those same CMOs agreed that a key challenge is making sure customers are up to speed on AI so they can understand the value AI-infused products and services bring to the table. In PR, though, it will be a challenge to explain AI to stakeholders when the industry itself barely grasps it.

What is Artificial Intelligence?

In short, AI refers to computer systems that can perform tasks that usually require human intelligence. AI is aware of its environment. It’s flexible. It learns from experience. It solves problems. Some recent examples:

  • A Sony AI systems wrote a pop song
  • IBM’s Watson created a movie trailer for a creepy upcoming 20th Century Fox sci-fi thriller (after being fed over 100 examples from horror movies)
  • Watson is making it easier for Staples customers to order products “anytime, anywhere, from any device they prefer, including by text message.”
  • Watson is also dishing up recipes based on the weather where you live, the kinds of flavors you like, and the groceries currently in your pantry and fridge, all on behalf of Campbell’s Soup.
  • Financial services company USAA is teaming up with IBM’s Watson to help its military members make the transition to civilian life. According to the company’s vice president of emerging channels, “We’re trying to use a virtual agent to intervene to be more productive for them.”
  • Sesame Workshop (the producer of Sesame Street) is working with Watson to “develop educational platforms and products that will be designed to adapt to the learning preferences and aptitude levels of individual preschoolers.”

The tech world is all over AI. Take Facebook for example, which wants to better understand machine learning, so it has donated 22 GPU-accelerated servers to deep-learning researchers in nine European countries. Microsoft has released Concept Graph, a database of words connected to concepts (such as dates, people, and objects) that will help AI machines better conceptualize through “common-sense computing capabilities.” The database contains 5.4 million concepts, and enters a field that includes Google’s Knowledge Graph, that contains 70 billion facts.

While some worry about the singularity (when machines become as smart as people) triggering an apocalyptic scenario like Skynet, the neural network group mind that took over the world in the Terminator movies. (A group of tech companies have formed the Partnership on Artificial Intelligence to Benefit People and Society to address just such issues. It includes Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and IBM.) The truth is, AI is more likely to help Barbie interact with a child, answering questions and addressing complex concepts like relationships.

That a doll will be able to hold real-time conversations should come as no surprise, since it’s the same AI technology that powers the Amazon Echo and its new competitor, the Google Home, not to mention Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Google Now, and Microsoft’s Cortana. Samsung’s Galaxy S8 is likely to have its own AI-powered virtual assistant accessible by a dedicated button on the side of the phone.

AI and PR

Some of the roles AI will play in public relations and corporate communications should be fairly obvious. Consider, for example, that the Associated Press is working with Automated Insights to generate AI-written articles about minor league baseball games. AP simply didn’t have enough boots on the ground to cover every minor league game, but with the game stats recorded by MLBAM (the official statistician of Minor League Baseball), the AI agent is able to apply AP editorial standards to craft articles covering the games. It’s not AP’s first venture into AI, which has been behind more than 3,500 each quarter covering earnings reports from U.S. companies.

Writers may blanch at the notion of “automated journalism” (AP’s term, not mine), but the fact is that the stories AI is writing for AP are stories that simply wouldn’t get written at all otherwise. That should get PR and communication agencies thinking about the kind of work they can offer clients without needing to add staff just to crank out routine press releases and other content. Some believe that passing this routine writing to AI will free up human beings for assignments that really do require more cognitive abilities.

More immediately, though, communicators should be exploring the potential for chatbots. In-house communicators need to consider how to apply them and agencies need to figure out how to provide services that enable their clients to take advantage of them. While it’s entirely possible to deploy chatbots that don’t use AI, the best and most useful chatbots will. Put simply, AI enables chatbots to understand a question no matter how it’s asked and reply based on information gathered from multiple sources. Again, marketing and advertising are all over chatbots. Twitter is introducing chatbots companies can use to automate DM responses to customer service inquiries they get through their Twitter accounts. Yahoo has aggregated its weather, finance, and fantasy football bots into a single app. Messaging app Kik launched a bot specifically to keep its 13-to-17-year-old user base up to speed on election results.

Facebook now offers 11,000 chatbots via its Messenger app that let people do everything from ordering and paying for a pizza to finding just the right movie to watch. Trying some out is the best way to get your brain churning at the ways bots can be part of the communications toolkit. At the most fundamental level, though, communicators need to understand that people increasingly would rather text a question and get an answer than look it up on the web or in an app.

Even TangoWork, the about-to-launch platform for internal communications chatbots, leverages Microsoft’s AI-based platform so employees will be able to ask a question however they would naturally ask it and the bot will understand, serving up the right responses.

But there are ways AI will be important to PR that aren’t so obvious. These are the uses that have occupied Chris Penn’s thoughts. His post on the SHIFT blog after attending World of Watson covers these in detail. What it comes down to is the ability to tell compelling data stories, “the process of making data understandable to humans—to our stakeholders, customers, and the public,” Chris writes. We can better analyze and visualize what people are talking about and what they’re saying, even if they’re saying it with images instead of text. It can allow us to extract patterns from the hundreds of thousands of news stories published every day by media companies.

It can even help us analyze how well our campaigns are performing. Our brethren in the marketing industry are already using chatbots to monitor, analyze and (in some cases) manage campaigns from within apps like Slack or Messenger, without having to sign into other systems. RevealBot, for example, is a Slack bot that provides an overview for campaigns, ad sets, or ads with reports and graphs. All a marketer has to do is text, “Show the Fall Sale ad sets from last week,” and the bot will deliver the right data, visually configured for easy comprehension, along with in-message buttons that let the marketer take action in response to the data.

Why we should worry

At the 2016 IABC World Conference, there were no sessions on data, no less Artificial Intelligence. I heard the same from attendees of the PRSA conference last month. I haven’t seen data, analytics, chatbots, or AI addressed in any communications association’s training sessions or publications. When 55% of CMOs say it’s going to have a bigger impact than social media, we in the industry should be tripping over ourselves in a rush to understand it, experiment with it, explain it to clients and leadership (Almost 50% of senior leadership don’t support their own companies’ data and analysis strategy, believing their gut-feel decision-making process is more trustworthy), and start using it to make our work better and more valuable.

There’s good advice already available on how to get ready for AI (like this piece from the Harvard Business Review) that will help communicators get up to speed.

I know the odds are low that agencies will be able to bill for AI activities today, or that in-house communicators can justifythe resources to tap into it right now. Ignoring it, though, means clients will seek help from non-PR firms that have invested in building their AI competencies and companies that haven’t acquired the skills in-house will suffer competitively to those that have. I hope to see our industry associations take up the cause of preparing their members for the inevitable part AI will play in communications.

As Chris writes, “Public relations is about the what, why, and how of information. Everything we do is predicated on analyzing old material and creating new material. That is the essence of cognition.”

No doubt I’ll see Chris next October at World of Watson. I hope I see hundreds of other communicators there, too.



  • 1.Interesting. I have to admit, I have some fear of AI. Mostly because I want the human touch. My fear and my passion is for example when food is prepared, cooked and served by a machine, although it maybe perfect it lacks the imperfections that only a human can provide and these imperfections intimate love.

    Am I crazy?

    As good as AI is, there is something in the soul that is missing.

    <a href="">Responsive SharePoint Design</a>

    Responsive">Geoff Talbot | November 2016 | Los Angeles

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