Almost exactly five years ago, we wrote a piece looking at how PRs could be replaced by robots in the future. With the recent news that Microsoft sacked twenty seven writing staff to replace them with AI algorithms, it seems appropriate to look at this prediction again:

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There’s a growing threat to journalism: robot writers.

A company called Automated Insights has developed a piece of software called WordSmith that generates news stories on topics such as finance and sports, which are published on the likes of Yahoo!, Associated Press and other outlets.

I know what you’re thinking. Surely a machine can’t write as well as a human?

NPR Planet Money (one of my current fave podcasts) recently did an experiment, where it pitched its fastest journalist, Scott Horsley, against WordSmith.

Scott knocked his piece out in an impressive seven minutes. WordSmith took a blistering two minutes.

You might argue that Scott’s piece was superior – it was certainly more colourful – but it raises the question of whether humans are always needed, especially in today’s data and information-hungry media landscape.

The other question is whether the PR industry needs to be worried about software like WordSmith.

Think how ‘PRSmith’ could work.

>PRSmith would scan the web for mentions of a particular brand according to sentiment (these things will get better in the future) and automatically reply.

>PRSmith would recommend responses to emerging threats, price changes, negative reviews and competitor activity and distribute these across digital media channels. The software would learn which responses performed best over time, based on sentiment analysis and impact on sales.

>PRSmith would distribute news to the right journalists (WordSmith or human), including the right information in the right format. PRSmith would never call a journalist up to ask if he/she/it had received the press release.

>PRSmith could respond to journalists’ requests in nano-seconds – without lying, making errors or trying to evade the question.

Of course this is all slightly tongue in cheek. PRSmith doesn’t yet exist and even WordSmith focuses on areas that are more easily automated, likes stats-heavy sports and financial news. But the rise of automation in the workplace will affect every industry – I don’t see why PR and journalism should be any different.

At present, we don’t believe that many more PR or journalism staff are in danger of losing out to robots immediately – there are many ‘human-centric’ jobs that AIs just can’t do. Similarly, most of the ‘AI PR’ tools that we’ve seen have either been analytics support (and therefore embraced by thousands of relieved PRs!) or terrible, clunky things. But we’d never say never…

The alleged threat of robots taking away human jobs is a topic that has been covered many, many times, by countless PR people, media outlets and academics. Nobody is safe from being replaced, according to the critics of artificial intelligence (AI) that are concerned it will lead to job losses. But what about artists? Surely, the creative genius of the next Banksy, Dali or Hockney must be safe?

Not anymore, apparently. An algorithm, dubbed PaintBot, that learns to mimic the unique styles and brushstrokes of any artist, has now been developed. To make matters worse, it takes only 6 hours for it to learn the artist’s style and five minutes to create a piece of artwork. And that’s just the start – eventually the AI will exceed the capability of a human.

Time will tell if AI is accepted as an artist. We’ll likely see initial, first-to-market artwork created by AI selling at a high price, but then plateau when the marketplace becomes saturated. I suspect we’ll also see certain forward-thinking artists embrace PaintBot technology, fusing their own style with AI to create something never seen before.

Whether you’re excited by AI or fear it, its impact on the artworld will be fascinating to observe. Frankly, that’ll be the case for every sector.

Capturing a moment is done in so many ways these days – through an Insta story, a quick snap on an SLR, even by using a retro polaroid camera. But have you done it through an instant doodle camera?

Noticing we were missing having instant doodles in our lives, a clever man named Dan Macnish decided to build an AI-powered camera that creates a cartoon-like drawing, rather than a photograph. Dan used Google’s Quick, Draw! Project from 2016 to create a dataset of doodles, then the camera, which is powered by Raspberry Pi and uses object recognition software, produces the picture.

So, it does mean that you only get a doodle from the Google library of 345 drawings, but you could also get a curious interpretation of what you’re looking at. Dan writes in his blog, “The result is always a surprise. A food selfie of a healthy salad might turn into an enormous hotdog, or a photo with friends might be photobombed by a goat.”

This is just Dan’s DIY project for now, so who knows if he’ll make cameras to sell. I would definitely want one out of sheer curiosity!

“Robots are taking all our jobs!” “Robots are going to take over the world!” These are the kinds of daily declarations that have become the norm, with the likes of Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk even predicting that robots will be responsible for the downfall of the human race. (A more terrifying possibility, given a pair of robots recently joking about it.)

Though we hope it will never quite come to that, if you haven’t already, it is certainly high time to sit up and take notice. AI is totally disrupting our society and the PR and marketing industry is certainly not exempt from its effects.

Robots are already making huge inroads into the industry and it is clear why. If it all came down to a question of speed, robots would certainly have us humans beat, as many journalists have personally experienced when putting themselves to the test against their machine counterparts. AI offers the potential to have all news in real-time and with the likes of Wordsmith from Automated Insights, robots have been producing data-generated news, such as quarterly earnings reports and sports scores, for a few years now. And their capabilities are only getting better. AI can do far more than just collate the facts into good copy but can also analyse and even contextualise them. A future where press releases and basic news are automatically created is looking pretty certain.

Beyond data and analysis

Beyond creating content from data, AI’s ability to monitor and track your brand and its presence across social and online media far outweighs any human efforts – however big your team or PR agency may be. Moreover, AI can continuously analyse this data, looking for correlations and trends to offer critical marketing insights and better measurement of your metrics. All of which is helping marketing teams to make better, data-driven marketing decisions reflecting what buyers really want.

But, if reading this makes you think you should quickly start making plans to replace your agency and team with an army of robots, perhaps don’t be quite so hasty.

AI will, and already is, taking over routine (and rather tedious) tasks – which is really no bad thing –but there are still areas where robots fall a little short. The use of AI is simply opening up the possibilities for us to concentrate on our “human” strengths. Robots offer us useful insights, noticing tiny changes and details that are on a scale and level beyond our scope, but it is humans who can actually transform this information into something meaningful.

Old-fashioned human thinking

Robots can identify the type of content and channels preferred by your audience, but there is also a vital difference between the right content for potential customers and for those customers who have already purchased your product. We know that “Do you need this piece of software?” is markedly different to “How to install it”, but robots are still unable to make this distinction. To effectively produce and properly utilise varied pieces of content, it is essential to have a real understanding of the purpose they serve.

And this is an understanding that robots still lack.

In a similar vein, robots may be able to generate a standard press release but this is not the same as producing an in-depth advisory or opinion piece discussing the future of your business and industry. Almost ironically, to position your business and brand as a forward-looking thought leader, you need old-fashioned human input.

Robot and human relationships

Robots are not just limited in terms of content production, so are their creative muscles. When searching for a new PR agency, you are looking for the one that bowls you over with their team’s creative ideas for a brilliant campaign – the one that you know is going to propel your brand towards success. If robots are failing to try and create some motivational posters, I think there is little doubt that they will not be able to live up to this.

Most importantly, PR and marketing still revolve around people and relationship management. As humans, we are far better placed to read human behaviour than a robot. Robots can rationalise decisions and analyse consumers but the problem is that often we are not rational. Humans are irrational beings. How many times have you done or bought something because, well, just because?  We shouldn’t forget that we are marketing to humans, not machines. Robots can track patterns to an extent – helping us better understand why consumers tend to drop out of a sales funnel for example – but on an emotional level, humans most definitely still have the upper hand. There is a reason why charities share the personal stories of those they help, showing us harrowing images to encourage donations – they are playing to our emotions. Machines aren’t capable of tugging on our heart strings in quite the same way.

Robots may not be running businesses’ PR and marketing efforts any time soon but that doesn’t mean overlooking the opportunities they offer, rather we should embrace them, working together with AI. We do not need to go quite so far as becoming some sort of human cyborg as Elon Musk may suggest, but we should apply machine learning to our own intelligence.  The robots aren’t coming, they are most definitely here – and they are staying. They won’t be taking over (just yet), but only if we use them to improve and better our own skills and capabilities.

Is it time to shape your reputation?

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