25 Mar 2014

Can you automate PR?

Notable journalist Tom Foremski recently asked whether PR can be automated, especially given the advances in automation in the advertising world. In it, he states:

The PR industry is heading for a serious showdown with ad agencies gunning for PR budgets. Ad agencies have algorithmic buying and selling of ads, there is already a large automated component to their business. Where is the equivalent component for PR? Bill Gates, chairman of Microsoft, recently predicted that within 20 years most jobs will be automated. Why are PR jobs so special that some of the work won’t be automated?

Can you automate PR? The answer is the same for public relations as it is for any industry – absolutely. There are plenty of opportunities for automation, from PR metrics and analytics (which are largely automated already, thanks to a suite of wonderful off the shelf analytics products like Google Analytics) to PR processes themselves. Ask an account coordinator at any PR firm which parts of their job are dull and repetitive, and you have ideal tasks suited for automation.

Washington DC Photos

The reason we don’t see much automation in the PR industry yet is that PR as an industry has typically not attracted technologists. Public relations is seen as a human art form and not as a science, which means that the industry typically doesn’t attract people whose specialities are data science, advanced mathematics, and coding. The reason these specialities matter is that they come with a different mindset, a mindset focused around algorithms and automation, a mindset that non-technologists typically don’t cultivate. The mindset of the technologist differs in one key aspect from everyone else: instead of asking, “how can I (or my team) do this?”, the technologist asks, “how can I make a machine do this instead of me?”.

Here’s a simple example. On Friday, Valleywag posted that Facebook was going to hit brand’s Pages even harder, slashing engagement rates to 1-2% if brands don’t pay to play. In a human-centric mindset, a typical response would have been to ask some people about their experiences, maybe do a bit of primary research, and draft up some compelling stories from anecdotes. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this approach, and it’s been the bread and butter of bloggers for decades. It makes for great, human stories that are easy to understand and relate to.

paybookIn a machine-centric mindset, our approach was to ask, “how can we create or code something that will answer the question of how much brands will pay?”. Posing the question differently, the technology-driven answer became apparent: devise an algorithm to estimate the costs based on existing data, then develop a mechanism to evaluate those costs at scale. A machine can do that well and at scale. The next step was to write the code that eventually became yesterday’s #PayBook Facebook Page Cost Calculator. In a nod to its usefulness, after just 24 hours, over 700 companies and brands have used it.

That’s the machine-centric mindset, the algorithmic mindset, and it’s largely absent from many businesses, but almost completely absent from the world of public relations.

The good news is, cultivating that mindset requires only a change in perspective, which means that public relations professionals of every kind can change how they look at their field and work. It’s a punchline for many nerd jokes, but the phrase “there’s an app for that” is the starting point for any PR pro to develop a machine-centric mindset. Any time you’re doing something dull and repetitive, ask yourself if there’s an app for that, and start Googling. There’s a good chance that the specific task you’re doing does have an app, a piece of software, that can handle at least a portion of the task you’re doing, and once you start down the path of automation, you’ll find more and more opportunities to bring it into your daily work.

If you happen to find yourself with a repetitive task that doesn’t “have an app for that”, then you’ve identified a golden opportunity to hire a developer to build one for you. Automating the process you’ve identified will save you time, effort, and mental energy, slowly contributing to your brand’s competitive advantage.

Can all of PR be automated? No. Nor should it be. But there are plenty of simple opportunities you can take advantage of every day to add little bits of automation until the bulk of the tedious, repetitive work is being done by those who do it best: the machines.

Christopher S. Penn
Vice President, Marketing Technology

Work at SHIFT

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Frederik Vincx
Frederik Vincx

Yes, "there's an app for that" Christopher. Most solutions are just a Google search away.

Recently I saw what might go down in history books as ‘the most mind numbing task in PR”. The London branch of a top PR agency tracks the number of Twitter followers of influencers.

Every week a junior plows through an Excel sheet: Copy pasting the Twitter handle of a contact. Surfing to the Twitter profile. Copy/pasting the follower count updates back in the Excel sheet. It hurts just typing this.

The junior could easily automate that task and have the rest of the day to learn about PR. A service like FollowerWonk keeps track of influencers. Or an Excel macro can fetch the Twitter info.

Yesterday I blogged a follow-up post with more PR automation examples.


The automation will come from outside the PR industry because outside the PR industry people don't know what can't be done so they try it anyway and they sometimes they get somewhere. 

Automation offers a degree of scale that PR lacks today and this is a limiting factor to growth. 


This is a great follow-up to Tom Foremski's take on the lack of progress we in the public relations profession have realized (in his view) in adopting and adapting technology. However, I will take minor issue with Chris Penn's observation that "public relations is seen as a human art form and not as a science."

I would argue that PR has dual, equally valid, personalities encompassing both art AND science. I wrote about this for Shonali Burke's excellent blog, "Waxing Unlyrical," nearly two years ago (http://www.waxingunlyrical.com/2012/04/05/public-relations-art-or-science/)...citing Edward L. Bernays' own observation that public relations is, in fact, a combination of the two.

I think it's terrific that this discussion is taking place in forums other than the classroom, where I often challenge my students to take one or the other side and defend their choice. Let's keep it goin!

cspenn moderator

@KirkHazlett  Kirk, I would agree that there are scientific aspects of it, but at the end of the day, anything dealing with human behavior (as PR does at its core) is going to be squishy. We're absurdly unpredictable animals!

Thanks so much for sharing.