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:


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…

It started long ago; declines in readership, subscriptions and ad revenues, inevitably leading to smaller editorial teams and lower page counts. Whilst print and online media isn’t ‘dead’ by any measure, it’s certainly had a lot of troubles.

By and large, most publications are still struggling to find ways to maintain quality journalism and keep solvent. Even the Financial Times, with its subscriptions of up to £700 a year, was pretty quiet on profitability figures this year, although it reported ‘rising revenue’ and firm profits the previous year. We’ve also seen a few publications get into trouble for not making it explicit that certain links are to advertisers and represent commercial links, rather than purely advisory ones, so it’s not an easy path to tread.

Enter Blendle: The app that blog imagetries to do for print publications what Flipboard did for onlines, letting you mix and match articles from different magazines and newspapers. Offering an ever-growing number of magazines and papers to choose from, including Advertising Age and the FT, it lets you browse the first few lines of articles to see what might interest you, then pay a very small amount – generally $0.05 – $0.45 – for full access to individual pieces.

Having suffered through all too many ‘e-reader / screen-reader / online print publications’ over the years, the Blendle interface is a pleasant surprise. With ‘staff picks’ on the opening ‘featured’ page, the magazines at first – worryingly – look like a photo of the print version, but hovering over articles brings up a pleasant re-rendering of the preview which vaguely reminds me of an old Adobe Acrobat document.

The images are still a little fuzzy on a full screen; they’re obviously not re-drawn, but the text is very readable. Being in beta, the team seems acutely aware that having a good experience is vital for early users – so you generally get a $2.50 trial credit to play around with the service upon registration.

There are some neat additional features, but at the moment, the main thing holding it back is the spectrum of publications signed up to the service. And whilst I can understand that there’s a risk the service might undermine and cut magazine subscriptions, it could also increase readership and revenue because it’s so easy (and quick) to use for attention-poor readers (that is to say, all of us). It could also help publications which might have lowered or completely abandoned their paywalls in recent years.

The mobile app is out and it’s very polished. I noticed a couple of reviews commenting that they thought the articles were too expensive – and it would definitely be easy to rattle through $10 or so in a week – but if the service is aimed primarily at longreads and analytical from the likes of the FT or the Economist, then this might not be a problem.

My other main worry for the service is more fundamental; there is so much free news and content out there, so many ways of aggregating content competing for so little time. Will people be motivated enough to sign up, use and stay on the service? Only time will tell.

Either way, Blendle is a positive development for journalism and publishing. It’s no silver bullet, but every little helps.

Back in the old days – and by old days, I mean more than 10 years ago – the press release was pretty much the only effective way for companies to distribute an announcement en masse. It was produced in a widely agreed format of headline, sub-head, first para, second para, quote etc., which still exists to this day.

The New York Times newsroom in 1942

An agency I used to work for charged them out at £600 a pop (it probably still does; inflation doesn’t seem to have hit agency fees) and we were tasked with writing as many as we could for our clients. They were printed out, put in envelopes and sent out to a mailing list compiled from a PR directory, before the Waymaker software came in and made its mark. In the tech world, you’d expect maybe a dozen cuttings from each release, which were studiously cut out from newspapers and magazines and glued into cuttings books.

The whole thing was about as sophisticated as making sausages.

Then, once software-based media directories took off and people realised that journalists preferred press releases via email, the whole thing started to go downhill. Once it effectively became free to distribute announcements, journalists started receiving them in their hundreds on a daily basis. Frustrated at not getting replies, PRs then started to call journalists to say, “have you got our press release?” It didn’t go down well. Still doesn’t.

Then, over a period of about three or four years, digital media took off. People started blogging initially, then social media came in. Twittr became Twitter – well, you know what happened there. Google bought YouTube. Myspace gave way to Facebook.

PRs clung on to the press release. Some bright spark came up with the “social news release” to allow other content to be included and for the release to be distributed. For the most part, it felt like press releases were just letting themselves go.

Meanwhile ad revenues were down in traditional media. Newspaper readership was plummeting, Trade publications went out of print. Trade titles either died at worst, or went online at best. Newsrooms of ten became newsrooms of one or two.

Still, PRs carried on doing their thing: sending out dozens of dozens of press releases. Only the number of cuttings from each press release has fallen somewhat.

Why is that? It’s not that there’s any less news out there. The problem, as we all know, is that people get their news in different ways these days. If there’s a breaking story, where’s the first place you go? Twitter. After that you’ll check things out on online news sites, blogs and so on. The one thing people hardly ever do is check out the press release.

People want news and insight faster, putting traditional media under a lot of pressure to get there first. Waiting to receive press releases by email seems almost quaintly old hat nowadays.

The future of press releases                                                          

But, despite presenting a pretty bad case for press releases, I still think they have their place – and it’s not just formal financial or legal announcements. The problem is that PRs usually misuse them. Most journalist surveys I’ve seen, say that they prefer receiving news or announcements from companies by press release. That’s fine. Send journalists press releases, just do it properly. They should be short, well-written statements with less puff and more attention to detail. Turn them around quickly and distribute them selectively, not en masse.

Consumers, bloggers and other interested parties probably don’t want to read a press release though. A blog post is much more effective as a communications medium. It isn’t restricted to the formatting conventions of a press release and can be written in more ‘human’ language. Plus, it’s a great place for journalists to link to (when was the last time you saw a journalist link to a press release?)

Personally, I don’t think the press release should be killed off – it still has a place in the communications toolkit. However, it really needs to be used in the right way in order to survive.

Do you think the press release is dead? Share your thoughts over on the Firefly Facebook poll.

This post was written by Phil Szomszor. Contact Phil on LinkedIn, Google+ or Twitter.

Spotted via Twitter, I found this article in the Washington Post particularly interesting. It discusses the evolving newsroom in the US which also brings challenges that resonate on this side of the pond. He makes two very good points:

Point 1 – Back in the day, a traditional newsroom had three types of jobs: reporter, editor and photographer. With the rise of all things digital, new titles have appeared: multiplatform idea triage specialist and deputy director of word-flow management and video branding strategy, to name a few. Is there really a need for fancy new titles that mean nothing to no one? What does a multiplatform idea triage specialist actually do?

Point 2 – Online headlines are no longer designed to catch the reader’s eye. What they are designed for is SEO, and they’re often changed to something utilitarian – as I have demonstrated in the title of this post. Can you imagine The Sun without their brand-defining (and often funny) pun headlines? So we don’t forget what we could be missing, here are a couple of great ones taken from Friday’s paper:
– We’ve saved her ass (the story about rescuing the parasailing donkey)
– Fish Fingaaghs (the story about a man accidentally filleting UK’s rarest fish)
– Stumphenge (the story about the timber ring found near Stonehenge)

It is interesting to see how the internet has affected the business of journalism, but let’s hope that the things that make “traditional media” special don’t get pushed aside in the digital wave. I firmly believe there’s room for both.

This post was written by Charlotte.

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