Forget AI vs. humans: Cobots will ‘evolutionise’ PR

Forget AI vs. humans: Cobots will ‘evolutionise’ PR

Tim Williams

Tim Williams

The robots are coming!

It’s a matter of perspective whether those four words make your eyes roll, stomach sink, or excitement run through your very bones. For many in the PR industry, it’s fair to say it’s the former. However, new research from the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) suggests robots will increasingly learn PR skills currently completed by humans. So, after years of dismissing the suggestion that robots will take over our jobs, should we now be concerned?

Rise of the machines

In its new ‘Humans still needed’ report, the CIPR reveals that today 12% of a public relations practitioner’s total skills could be replaced by artificial intelligence (AI), human-like machines that can think, reason and even feel, with complex identities and personalities. Within five years that figure will rise to 38%.

Today, the level at which AI operates in the PR industry is relatively low. For example, AI is used to generate clippings books in seconds, while social listening and monitoring tools help us identify and build communities, track conversations and analyse sentiments. In terms of advancement, the AI tools on the market today are more like a toddler than an adult.

In five years’ time, however, that toddler will have grown to be a teenager. Auditing, forecasting and data management tools will advance – most likely to the point that they’re faster and less error-prone than you and I. Perhaps the biggest development though will be in AI’s ability to analyse. Currently, the tools available give us insight but not necessarily practical analysis of said insight, and it remains up to us to ‘translate’ the data to know how best to act on it. In future, machine learning will provide lightning fast data analysis, evaluation and even problem solving. This will be a huge asset to time-strapped PR practitioners, who will be freed from such time-intensive tasks.

Complement, don’t replace

Crucially, as the aptly named CIPR research report suggests, the AI will not be mature enough to manage itself. Much like a teenager, it will need direction. And even then, there are some skills that it simply hasn’t developed, such as ethics, communicating and accountability. In fact, AI specialists concede these are three elements that may never be equal to humans – they can be learned, but only to an extent. In any case, AI will require guidance.

The manufacturing sector has experienced a similar period of enlightenment in recent years. The role of the average worker, especially those on the production line, was at serious risk of being eradicated with the introduction of the smart factory. However, the idea of robot-dominated manufacturing cells has been replaced by the reality of man and machine working hand in hand.

Whereas traditional robots are designed to operate autonomously, collaborative robots – otherwise known as ‘cobots’ – interact with workers to support and enhance what they’re doing. A basic example of this in practice is a cobot rigged with a laser scanning a manufactured component to ensure it is faultless and of acceptable quality. The cobot is operated and controlled by the worker, from initial set-up, through monitoring its activity, to verification of its output.

PR professionals can learn an awful lot from this. Consider most of the admin and leg work we do day-to day; stripping this back to the bare minimum would enable both in-house and agency teams to spend more time focusing on what matters most: building profiles and enhancing reputations. All we need to do is instruct and oversee the AI to ensure it is set up to deliver what is required and then validate the output.

We’re already seeing this occur in traditional PR. Last month the Press Association (PA) announced it is trialling artificial intelligence that generates data-based news stories collaboratively with journalists. And despite fears it would impact jobs, the move has led to PA growing its team by four new members of staff. According to PA, over 1,000 published news pieces have been produced through this collaborative approach. It’s impressive – for 10 Firefly points I challenge you to identify which recent news stories have been created collaboratively and which haven’t.

Beyond this, it’s important to draw attention to an important part of the CIPR’s research: its statistics look at the percentage of skills that are currently widely exercised, but what about skills we’re yet to develop or aren’t widely used? One small example of this is our increasing interaction with influencers, which perfectly proves how the role of PR professionals is always evolving. A decade ago influencer marketing was barely on people’s radar, but now it’s become an essential part of many consumer campaigns.

Yes, 38% of a public relations practitioner’s skills today may well be replaced by AI in five years’ time – but that doesn’t factor in the new skills we’ll develop. The likelihood is that the best practitioners will evolve to strengthen the skills robots can’t do, making them invaluable in the process.

Is the tech advanced enough yet?

While the theory for complementing PRs with cobots is obvious, there are question marks over whether or not the technology is ready yet. While there are a few examples of tools that can deliver tremendous value if applied properly, such as Marketo and Eloqua, there are many that excite but don’t impress – certainly not to the point that we replace the processes that we know deliver results.

The manufacturing sector can again be a source of inspiration. Very few big manufacturers have introduced large scale change, as the risk of downtime is too high if something were to go wrong. Just look at Tesla, which has had production problems for over a year and only just reached its weekly targets. Instead, most are evolving their processes through implementing gradual change. They’re updating operations bit by bit, which is keeping disruption to a minimum in the short-term but will eventually all come together to hopefully form a haven of man and machine collaboration. This approach can reap tangible rewards in PR too.

While we’ve barely scratched the surface here, there is much for PR practitioners to be excited by when it comes to AI. We’ll be free of many of the more laborious, time-intensive tasks, allowing us to focus on the more important tasks that directly impact businesses. For best results, practitioners need to further develop skills that enable seamless working with cobots and strengthen those skills that bots aren’t capable of. Through this cobot-centric approach, we can work more efficiently and deliver more.


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