ITL #510 AI’s implications for PR: it’s time to step up1 month, 3 weeks ago
The AI revolution is here today and the Comms profession risks becoming irrelevant tomorrow if we do not move from slight familiarity and passivity to strategic application. By Anthony D’Angelo.
Like thousands of communications professionals, I’ve been trying gamely to understand Artificial Intelligence (AI) and what it means for the practice of public relations. As I’ve pursued this learning, I’m reminded of a coworker from my corporate career who was stoutly pro-union and, not without reason, anti-management.
She told me she planned to vote down a union contract with salary concessions that would help to counter devastating market conditions. Without those concessions, a factory faced closure and hundreds of jobs, including hers, would be lost.
“I’m not worried if we shut down,” she told me. “I can type 60 words per minute.” At that moment my heart went out to her, as she had no idea that the world outside the company walls had transmogrified during the years she had spent within them. Her typing skills, while impressive, were irrelevant in a changed marketplace.
I have the same concern for PR professionals who ignore what AI is already doing to our marketplace, even as I try to stave off irrelevance myself. Is my worry overblown? As I challenge myself to identify the implications of AI for PR, I asked an AI program (ChatGPT) to identify them for me, and here’s what it wrote:
Artificial intelligence (AI) has the potential to significantly impact the field of public relations in a number of ways. Some potential implications include:
- Personalization: AI can help public relations professionals tailor their messaging and outreach efforts to specific individuals or groups, based on data analysis and machine learning algorithms. This can make communication more effective and efficient, as it allows PR professionals to target their efforts to the audiences most likely to be receptive.
- Automation: AI can also automate certain tasks that are currently done manually, such as social media monitoring, media monitoring, and content creation. This can free up time for PR professionals to focus on more high-level tasks, such as strategy development and stakeholder engagement.
- Analytics: AI can provide real-time analysis of data and insights into the effectiveness of PR campaigns. This can help PR professionals adjust their strategies and tactics in real-time, based on data-driven insights.
- Reputation management: AI can also help PR professionals manage their online reputations by identifying and responding to potential crises before they escalate.
Overall, the use of AI in public relations can help professionals communicate more effectively, save time, and make data-driven decisions.
As shown above, AI can also write, and reasonably well. Its answer to my question took less than a few seconds to create. Emboldened, I asked ChatGPT about the potential dangers of AI for PR. And in a couple of heartbeats, I got this list:
- Lack of transparency: AI systems can be difficult to understand and explain, which can create mistrust and skepticism among the public.
- Bias and discrimination: AI systems can perpetuate and amplify biases present in their training data, leading to unfair and discriminatory outcomes.
- Security risks: AI systems can be vulnerable to hacking and other types of cyber attacks, which could have serious consequences for a company's reputation.
- Loss of jobs: The increasing use of AI in various industries could lead to job loss and unemployment, which could generate negative public sentiment.
- Ethical concerns: The development and use of AI raises a number of ethical concerns, including questions about accountability and responsibility.
It's important for companies to be aware of these potential dangers and take steps to mitigate them when using AI in their public relations efforts.
These instantaneous answers reinforced information I had gleaned over the course of several weeks from a variety of more traditional sources, including seminars, articles and professional associations. I was unsure whether to feel newly powerful or increasingly irrelevant. I have discovered, in all seriousness, that the game has changed for PR. AI can perform research, write, design, analyze, monitor and predict. It can also communicate in human-sounding voices and broadcast video using avatars so lifelike that they’re indistinguishable from humans.
What is particularly stunning is that we humans have actual relationships with these entities, developed through interactions with speech programs such as Google Duplex or Amazon Polly, or multi-modal platforms that integrate text and visuals such as DALL-E 2 or Imagen. The 2013 film “Her,” with Scarlett Johansson starring as an AI-driven virtual assistant with whom Joaquin Phoenix’s character develops a personal relationship, has moved from science fiction to almost nonfiction.
These relationships are becoming increasingly immersive thanks to development work in the metaverse, where augmented and virtual reality can guide us into a parallel universe, and examples include Meta Horizons Workrooms, Microsoft Mesh and Decentraland. Electronic gaming is a leading-edge application for these immersive experiences, and “gamification” has made its way into traditional business processes.
AI has been described as “flexible decision-making processes and actions of software-driven agents…they learn from experience.”1 In other words, the software algorithms incorporate data to refine and improve themselves. As ChatGPT wrote (note the anthropomorphic verb usage), the program actually learns, but it’s also subject to biases and mis- and disinformation, as well as hacks. When that happens, who is hurt and who is responsible?
I submit that human communicators are, which may seem both obvious and quaintly old-school given the startling capabilities of machines and software programs that get smarter every day. Faced with the potential for hacks and deep fakes, and the now commonplace occurrence for us to not recognize we are interacting with a program rather than a person (ask any journalist who has inadvertently quoted a bot), the need for communicators to take responsibility for this new realm is urgent.
As recommended in the November 2021 “AI and Big Data Readiness Report” from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations: “AI and the fundamental structural change it will bring needs to become a part of a strategic conversation in the profession. The profession is re-shaping and this needs to be by design, not by default.”
Consultant and author Martin Waxman also offers fundamentally important guidance along these lines, urging communications professionals to:
- understand what AI is and does
- develop an ethical approach to AI, data and privacy
- manage risks and reduce bias
- build a protocol to assess the available tools
- think like a data scientist.
For professionals like me, learning and adopting these new technologies is, while exciting, a bit intimidating and uncomfortable. That is preferable, certainly, to eventually realizing we are attempting to practice a profession by employing outdated protocols and skills, similar to the typist I knew. Dr. Dean Kruckeberg of the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, studies the AI phenomenon in relationship to PR and notes, “One indicator of a revolution is an individual’s inability to ignore it.” The AI revolution is here, and the time for our profession to move from slight familiarity and passivity to strategic application is today, else we’ll be irrelevant tomorrow.
1 Zerfass, A., Hagelstein, J., & Tench, R. (2020). Artificial intelligence in communication management: A cross-national study on adoption and knowledge, impact, challenges and risks. AI in Communication Management, 24(4), 377-389.
Anthony D’Angelo, APR, Fellow PRSA, is a professor of practice in public relations and director of the master’s program in Communications Management at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications. He would like to acknowledge the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ “AI and Big Data Readiness Report,” its co-authors Dr. Swati Virmani and Professor Anne Gregory, as well as AI thought leaders Jean Valin and Martin Waxman for their helpful publications and commentary that informed this article.mail the author
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