Why AI won’t Replace PR

I was watching 60 Minutes this weekend, which ran a segment about AI that highlighted China’s growing clout in the tech (Silicon Valley, hope you were watching; you should be scared, very scared).

They interviewed Kai-Fu Lee, the so-called Oracle of AI who boasts a Ph.D., Apple, Microsoft, and Google stints, and runs a Chinese VC firm that’s minted a number of AI unicorns.

He painted an awe-inspiring picture of the state and direction of AI.  The demos were pretty incredible (you can check them out in the video link above). It all seemed a little freakish, and begged the questions: where is this all going? And: what do the strides mean for things like privacy and jobs?

To the latter point, Kai-Fu predicted that the tech could displace up to 40% of jobs globally in 15-25 years.

It sounded like a big, scary number with vast implications for the global labor market and living standards. This also made me wonder about what might happen to the PR field as a result.

After all, there already are algorithms writing and editing news stories. AI and bots power a growing number of marketing tasks. Can we expect an army of PR writing and pitching flack-bots any time soon?

While I was pondering this, my good friend Toni Muzi Falconi seemingly read my mind and shared this story: Listen Very Carefully: the Bots are Coming.

In the article, Shelley Sullivan cited numbers that show employment is actually growing in PR and a research paper that explored which of the field’s 52 skills can be augmented or replaced by AI. Shelley wrote:

And therein lies the gift for us PR professionals. Our focus now needs to be on becoming better at the things machines cannot do, at what we as humans are uniquely good at… actually listening to and understanding what people are saying and then using this information to connect with audiences to tell emotion-driven stories… communicate… based on our understanding of that audience and their needs and our emotional ability to read them.

(As I read this, I could not help thinking of an updated version of Stuart Smalley’s daily affirmation: “We’ll beat those damn machines because we’re smart enough… we’re good enough… and gosh darn it, people like people!”)

She pointed out areas where AI is helping PR, like enabling better social listening, optimizing headlines and supporting reputation management through early warnings of crises.

Right now, and for the foreseeable future, the tech can help with specific tasks. But generalized AI that can think like a human and be applied to many problems is not on the horizon or may never happen, Kai-Fu said in the 60 Minutes interview.  He has also said that jobs that are complex and require empathy and creativity are safe – which made me smile, as there are important for most types of PR.

This may come as a revelation, as I’ve found that most people don’t understand PR, or what the job entails.  Success means mastering a diverse set of skills, creativity and out-of-the-box thinking.

AI won’t replace it because PR is the ultimate high touch profession. Sure, you might have algorithm-generated crappy news stories, and someday bots to deliver crappy PR pitches, maybe even to other algorithms. And the result will be? (fill in the blank).

The best job insurance against AI is to be our best, solve the increasing communications challenges of today with a smart and human approach, caveat automaton.

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One Response to Why AI won’t Replace PR

  1. Don Bates says:

    Listening as a term is neutral. Listening to and for what? Truth? Lies? Proof of our opinions? Proof of their opinions? How would this “new” listening be different than all the listening that has come before? Methinks we assume too much about the listening ability of PR practitioners versus anyone else — social workers, attorneys, parents, doctors, marketeers, ad creators, legislators, clergy, et al. The quality of listening and the objective actions that result are what count in the end. That’s magic few people possess no matter the degree and intensity of their listening.

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