As revolutionary technologies like immediate speech translation and Google’s AlphaGo (the AI which defeated the world champion at the game Go, a feat which was not expected to be possible for decades to come) show up more and more in the news, it’s becoming clear that the world is on the precipice of great change. AI and machine learning are starting to be able to do tasks which were thought to be exclusive to humans, and this poses a huge threat to white-collar jobs. There is no question that this transformation will affect the public relations world in some capacity, given that the effect of this technology will be exponential once it really takes off. There is, however, another question on every PR professional’s mind: how active a role can we expect public relations staff to play in the future of this industry?
AI and machine learning are gaining a stronger foothold in PR work every day, and the idea that they could displace people can no longer be dismissed as a theoretical concern. For example, Visitone’s AI is being used in the Republican presidential campaign right now, automatically scanning clips of speeches and statements made by Democratic candidate Hilary Clinton for strange or angry moments that could be used as the basis for attack ads. That’s the kind of work that an intern or another low-level employee might have done if there wasn’t an algorithm doing it for them. As it stands, that task no longer needs a person’s attention, and the hours that that task would normally take are no longer time that the presidential campaign will consider buying from a PR professional in the form of a job or freelance contract.
While that’s a shame from our perspective, it makes perfect sense from a business standpoint. A person could never process the volume of content that this AI does; it is physically impossible to do so, even if the person worked around the clock as the AI does. People simply cannot match the speed of a computer that can sift through reams of information near-instantaneously. The AI also cannot become distracted from its work (so every minute of that full day is productive), call in sick, need vacation time, cost extra for benefits and payroll taxes, or fail to get along with its co-workers. Anything that can be done automatically should be, if efficiency and cost savings are the goal.
All these downsides aside, there are definitely still parts of PR work that are much better suited to being done by human employees. In many ways you might consider PR to be the ultimate automation-proofed industry; it demands a high degree of social competence, an excellent and nuanced grasp of the language being worked in, as well as the ability to quickly adapt to the changing tides of public opinion. While a machine can certainly understand the concept of trends in human reactions, it can’t independently evaluate a campaign, or gauge when something runs the risk of offending people. It can’t tell you when your best-laid plans have gone horribly awry, necessitating swift and comprehensive damage control. These are things that every competent PR professional can do, and those skills are what will keep the job role useful in the future.
Ultimately, effective PR cannot be reduced to a simple equation. It is a dynamic and demanding process that requires an extensive understanding of human emotions and how to manipulate them, and AI can’t quite match us in that particular department yet. While we can probably expect a reduction in the number of PR roles in the industry overall, humans still have a definite place in this line of work.
Tim Aldiss writes for Four Broadgate, a financial services and higher education public relations (PR) agency.