When I look at what the account coordinator job looks like for entry level employees today, it is unrecognizable from my experience back in the mid-90s. I mailed out paper press kits, faxed press releases and used FedEx to get product beauty shots or screen shots in slide form to my editorial contacts. There was liberal use of the copy machine and electric stapler. A stamp machine and visits to the post office. A daily delivery of titles like PC Week and LAN Times. PC Magazine was as thick as the September issue of Vogue. I was responsible for reading each article and scanning every page for mentions of my clients. Reporters and publication information was contained in encyclopedia-sized books delivered quarterly.
This must seem quaint to current account coordinators whose job is completely different after the impact of the internet, which changed everything about that job – and just about every aspect of how PR happens today. Email and social media have increased the number of channels to monitor and engage in. And the pace of PR is, well, breakneck. But I think that AI could have as much impact on our jobs as the internet did – if not more. One thing we know about humans is that we don’t scale. There are only so many hours in a day and we don’t work 24/7. We also know that human PR talent can be expensive. So, while we may deliver good work, it’s relatively slow and costly. With that in mind, let’s look at the types of PR work that AI could replace or significantly impact.
One of the most common claims is that AI will easily do repetitive, template work much faster, more efficiently and with greater accuracy than a human. The obvious task that is highly templatized is reporting. Weekly, monthly, even daily coverage reports can be generated by a machine in minutes, if the bot is programmed correctly. Our work might be to review the machine-generated report for errors or insights, but the heavy lifting, which takes a human several hours, will be handled in minutes by a machine. In fact, there are likely myriad administrative tasks that could be delegated to AI such as creating media lists and speaking databases. Imagine feeding thousands of data points from the internet about topics and industries and getting a 90% or better accurate list. Given these likely outcomes in the industry, it’s not clear what an entry-level role in PR would look like in 10 years.
Under reporting, we could also think about sentiment analysis. Something that is near impossible for team of humans to do because of the volume of data and the hours involved to read every social media post and article about your company. Yet advances in natural language processing are making it possible for a machine to finally and truly understand tone and tell you how the world feels about your brand. Theoretically you could feed hundreds of thousands of articles and social media posts into the system and discover insights in minutes. Then the task becomes what to do with that knowledge, not how to find it.
A few years ago, the Associated Press started experimenting with bot-written news stories, particularly financial ones. Technology for content creation is here and being used now. So why does PR still write press releases, blog posts and bylined articles? Well, that may not be the case in five years. Again, using thousands of data points from existing content (both internal and external), a machine could conceivable create a month’s worth of blog content in less than a day. The content may not be perfect, but it could be good enough that it only requires a few minutes of human polishing to get it ready to post. Imagine marrying that content with Google’s SEO data to ensure that your content will get ranked higher – that too can be done today and I suspect companies will be doing more of this over time.
Now I expect to hear “No way. PR pitching is about relationships. No machine will take that job.” Sadly, I don’t believe that this will be the case in the next decade. While I would like to assume media relations requires a human touch, my practical side challenges that notion. Microsoft’s Tay chatbot not withstanding and given that much of our outreach is done via electronic channels, I believe that chatbots will continue to dramatically improve in their ability to engage seamlessly with humans – and not mimic our worst behavior. As I said above, natural language processing or conversational AI is improving at a remarkable rate. Capital One recently launched their Eno bot at SXSW, which, using natural language processing, will respond to various SMS-text-based banking needs, such as account balances, recent transactions and credit limits. Also consider that Echo and Echo Dot were the best-selling holiday product for Amazon in 2016 – millions of people are talking to Alexa directly, no keyboard required. While this may be farther out than reporting and content creation, I don’t doubt that one day media relations will be done by a “pitch bot.”
In the short term, PR pros can use AI to find out much more detail about a reporter before pitching. While we always recommend that staff do their homework before sending a pitch, AI can make this process not only faster but more accurate, highlighting topics of interest, tone of articles and even make suggestions on what type of pitch might work. Now that’s something I can get behind right away!
You may think those senior roles are safe from AI and automation, but think again. Couldn’t a machine be programmed to review all the news articles written in a certain time frame, website content, planned internal and external events, upcoming corporate announcements and put together a fairly good PR plan? In a few minutes? The ability to take in large volumes of data, identify patterns and put together analysis could definitely create improved PR plans – something that we at SHIFT strive to do with our data-driven PR methodology. Using data to make decisions and plans is here today but could become even more automated in the future.
What do we do to stay relevant? While much of this blog may give some PR pros heart palpitations, I share this because there is a human element in here and an opportunity to learn and grow in your career. PR will not be made obsolete. As many scientists and visionaries have pointed out we will work smarter, using AI bots to our advantage. I listed a few ways above that we could use AI now to improve our day-to-day jobs and deliver better outputs. Value from humans will lie in managing the machine, finetuning the work if you will, being creative which is something very difficult for machines to do, and infusing our work with emotion and empathy – uniquely human traits which are the building blocks for all relationships. And at the end of the day, people work with people they like. Whether it’s client/agency or PR pro/reporter, there will still be a need for human interaction.
I believe that in the next five to ten years we’ll get to do the best work of our lives, free from hum drum tasks, being able to deliver higher quality results, faster and better than before. I’ll leave you with this, what task would you happily hand over to a machine today if you could?