AI readiness: Seven hard truths for PR

AI Readiness_Blog

By Claire Simpson, Senior Communications Consultant at Hard Numbers

Artificial intelligence is set to transform the PR industry. We’ve known this for some time, but the question of our readiness remains a salient one. 

Last week, it was explored by an expert panel as part of CIPR Greater London Group’s ‘Are you ready for AI?’ event, including Katie King, CEO of AI in Business, Andrew Bruce Smith, Director of Escherman and Chair of the CIPR Artificial Intelligence in Public Relations panel, Allison Spray, Managing Director, Data + Analytics at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and Ant Cousins, CEO of Factmata

It was a lively discussion on the pros and pitfalls of AI for the PR industry, examining the impact of AI-powered tools on practitioners to date and how this is set to develop in the coming years. The discussion identified seven hard truths for PR, as AI technology becomes more prevalent in our working lives:

  1. AI knowledge is currently sitting with IT

Andrew Bruce Smith kicked off the discussion with an overview of key findings from the CIPR’s AI and Big Data Readiness Report. The research showed that AI knowledge most commonly resides within organisations’ digital and IT teams. Though, alarmingly, almost a third of respondents reported that ‘ownership’ of AI knowledge was unknown or irrelevant to them. This mindset needs to shift rapidly if PR wants to keep pace in a fast-changing business landscape.

  1. We need to recognise augmented vs artificial intelligence

One common point of confusion among practitioners is what we’re actually talking about when we say ‘AI’. As Katie King explained, for the most part we’re talking about big data, insights and automation. AI is the wrong term, at least in the here and now. We should be saying ‘augmented intelligence’. As Ant Cousins noted, it’s going to take several years before AI replaces roles entirely, and a lot of these positions are focused on manual tasks. AI alleviates the heavy lifting of data analysis, helping PR people to get to insights faster. This means more time to spend on higher level tasks.

  1. People are at the heart of AI innovation and deployment

According to King, organisations must look at their people and where they want to go as a business to effectively harness AI technology. That means attracting and being more open to a wider talent pool. For example, bringing in data scientists and coders to have conversations we’re not able to right now. As subject matter experts, these hires can also help upskill the current workforce as AI adoption accelerates.

  1. We all need to become more data literate 

“If you’re afraid of excel, I don’t have good news.” In possibly my favourite quote of the evening, King aptly summarised the mindset challenge for practitioners. Too often, AI is seen as ‘somebody else’s job’. This was echoed by Cousins who identified ‘explainability’ as the biggest challenge for AI vendors. He noted that data literacy is a must for any business department, not just PR. As Allison Spray added, understanding complementary skill sets and how AI will augment your role, empowers practitioners to engage in conversations around the technology. And thereby feel more comfortable when their business starts implementing these tools.

  1. AI is the future of prediction and production

Offering a two-fold view of how AI is set to transform the industry, Cousins pointed to prediction and production. The former will see the rise of more sophisticated AI language models. This means computers are able to effectively generate copy that users can edit rather than create from scratch. This has implications for PRs and journalists alike. By automating low level copywriting, AI can take care of mundane or prescriptive content. But, as Smith highlighted, the real opportunity is on the predictive side. Though less mature at this stage, AI has the potential to support scenario planning and augment strategic planning. This presents perhaps the most interesting applications for strategic communications.

  1. We need to communicate the AI opportunity better 

According to Smith, there’s a mix of fear and optimism around AI. This is characterised by the dichotomy between potential job losses and a huge desire to learn among practitioners. Citing World Economic forum data, King added that there are 85 million jobs decreasing in demand across sectors due to AI. But the technology will drive a net benefit – with 97 million new roles set to be created by 2025. In short, AI won’t replace the role of PR. But if organisations don’t start using these tools, they’ll get left behind as others do.

  1. Continuous learning is the first line of defence 

Concluding the discussion, King offered a simple piece of advice to practitioners. “Go on a journey of continuous learning and hold onto that for life”. Age, gender and tech knowledge shouldn’t be a barrier to engaging with AI, or any other innovation shaping the future of our industry. Smith, meanwhile, posed the question of what jobs will be left for PR people in the years ahead. While we shouldn’t worry to the point of paralysis, he noted that complacency is the biggest threat to the industry. To practitioners, he says: you don’t need to have a masters degree in tech or computer science. But understanding basic probability and statistics, as well as developing data storytelling skills, are fundamentals for AI success.

In a post-pandemic world, organisations across sectors no longer have a choice but to adopt new systems and embrace innovation. As Cousins noted, there’s too much data out there putting pressure on industries to respond faster. And PR is no exception.

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