What PR Professionals Should Have Learned at IBM World of Watson

IBM’s premier analytics and insights conference, World of Watson, was a 4-day event on the future of cognitive computing – artificial intelligence and machine learning.

During that time, SHIFT was on site. We met exactly four PR professionals, all of them IBM employees. Out of almost 20,000 people, we were the only one we knew of representing a PR firm. True, SHIFT attended as an IBM Futurist and Predictioneer, at the invitation of the Watson Analytics team, speaking spoke about the future, the Rise of the Citizen Analyst.

But here’s the thing: even if they had not invited us, attending was still important. Why?

Because AI and cognitive computing are the future of PR.

Every public relations company that wants to have a long, fruitful, sustainable business should have had at least one person attending IBM World of Watson. Every single one. PR isn’t just press releases and bylines. It’s information. Everything we do is about putting information into the world. And as an information industry, we are powered by data.

IBM’s World of Watson and events like it are how we grow. Cognitive computing and AI are not some far-off science fiction: they are happening right now, and we need to be prepared for them. If we sit back and let such tools pass us by, someone else — someone driven, someone prepared — will swoop in and leave us in the dust.

And we’d deserve it.

So much was revealed at World of Watson that will impact our industry forever. Let’s look at a few key trends from the event for PR professionals.

Let machines read at scale

Our ability as PR professionals to be effective relies on our ability to quickly ingest and understand content at massive scale. Consider our recent analyses of how much news is generated each day, and how many press releases our industry sends out. Humans can’t read a thousand releases a day. Humans can’t parse 205,000 news stories a day. Manual media monitoring and reporting is time-consuming, expensive, and often a waste of resources and human talent. Cognitive computing, machine learning, and massive scale databases solve these problems for us.

At World of Watson, IBM data scientists demonstrated the latest technology solutions for delving through millions of papers, articles, and data to find hidden patterns and powerful insights.

As an industry, we must stop fearing technology. Technology is built on a set of principles, and the principles underpinning Watson’s effectiveness can be applied to any industry. These tools, plus our individual industry expertise, offer new public relations solutions.

Rather than assigning a whole team to read the day’s news or client mentions, smart PR professionals will take advantage of the latest Big Data technologies like Apache Spark, and use an artificial intelligence summarize the relevant news about their clients and provide useful insights about what’s driving the day’s news.

Tell better data stories

Our work is often undervalued because our industry fails at reporting data. Moreover, when we do actually have data worth reporting, most of us skimp on analysis.  Instead, we toss out a chart, an infographic, or a good quote and hope no one notices that we haven’t done our homework.

Part of the reason is that few PR professionals are data analysts; the other part is that many of us don’t have access to quality analytics software. Why does software matter? Good analytics software takes existing data and does the analysis for you, removing the need for mathematical or statistical expertise which permits the transformation of data into analysis.

This is data storytelling, the process of making data understandable to humans – to our stakeholders, customers, and the public. If cognitive computing is the future of PR, data storytelling is the foundation on which cognitive computing is built – the story in our data.

At World of Watson, one of the major trends in analytics tools is using data to tell better stories. In today’s world, insights are no longer enough. Clients and consumers need new ways to interpret insights, to fit them to their own uses and journeys. How can we tell stories more effectively with data? In products like Watson Analytics, storytelling is now baked into the product with Expert Storybooks.

watson storybook

Tools like Expert Storybooks shift the focus from the quantity of data to the quality of it, helping us to find our focus and tell a story using only key insights.

Learn to see at scale

Visual content is unquestionably the current dominant form of media for the digital age. Social media influencers – and everyone else – now post millions of pictures a day. On Instagram alone, users post 694 new photos per second. YouTube users post 400 hours of new video per second.

Yet our ability to analyze and understand visual content is exceedingly poor. Worse, there are so many visual data streams produced in any given minute that it becomes impossible to do meaningful analysis on a large scale by hand. Compound the avalanche of content with little to no meta-data and you have a recipe for opacity in visual content reporting.

At World of Watson, IBM showcased Watson’s ability to recognize, based on over a billion image training library, the contents of images – with no other context.


Automated image recognition will be a game-changer for the public relations industry. We no longer need to force employees to toil through the drudgery of manual image identification. We can scale our image classification from just our most important visual imagery to much larger data sets to better understand existing and evolving trends. What if you had a way to dissect the what, why, and how behind influence Instagram posts? What if you had insight into the subject matter shown in the fastest trending YouTube videos? These capabilities are now within our reach.

Public relations is a cognitive industry

Public relations used to be about labor. It was people at desks writing, researching, and sending out information. People did rote tasks for an hourly wage or billing rate.

Today, 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. Until now, we were unable to express this simple truth.

Yet with the right combination of technology and human insight, we stand at the precipice of a transformation, of an evolution from labor to cognition. We stand on the verge of radical change, of being able to express the value of our work by its cognitive outputs – by the quality of our thinking –  instead of the number of hours we worked on a project.

Tools like those shared at IBM World of Watson will help us reach this goal.

Disclosures: SHIFT Communications is an IBM Business Partner. IBM sponsored my attendance and travel expenses to attend World of Watson.

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