It’s been a long time since my schooldays – a time when the idea of Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a threat to any profession was the stuff of sci-fi movies. Yet there are some things I will never forget. Like the time our math teacher made the mistake of thinking he could get away with wearing a wig in class. Or the day my classmates decided to take the biology department’s human skeleton for a little walk so he could peer in at classroom windows while lessons were in progress. Nor will I forget our history teacher, Miss Doublet.
Miss Doublet was about 10 years older than us. She was sweet, full of nervous energy and had the thankless task of teaching us about the Industrial Revolution. I also remember she was fiercely passionate about her subject. It’s probably why – to this day – I can recall verbatim her favorite quote that she would repeatedly drum into us 15 year-old schoolboys:
“Machines and machines that make machines have proven capable of an infinite sequence of reproduction.”1
As the quote suggests, the Industrial Revolution, far from being some distant period in history, is a process of continuous evolution that carries on today. Present industry commentators seem to agree. By most accounts we are presently experiencing Industrial Revolution 4.0 – the era of AI and bots.
A particularly interesting AI development for PR folk is the rise of “robo-journalism.” The Press Association (PA) in London has already begun to use bots to churn out news stories. Articles to date have largely focused on distilling easily-digestible headlines from newly published surveys or scientific research. PA hopes to distribute 30,000 such stories a month by the end of April.
In light of these developments it’s probably worth taking a moment to consider what influence AI may have on the PR profession.
We all know the economic pressures newspapers and newsrooms are under to remain profitable in the face of falling circulation figures and audience fragmentation. In the UK so many national, regional and local newspapers have closed that the Prime Minister has called it a threat to democracy and announced a review into the industry’s future.
Survivors will almost certainly rely on AI tools to help manage the extra workload. Yet there is a limit to how much automated content can influence people’s opinions. Even Facebook, which famously fired its news curators and replaced them with algorithms for Trending news, is planning to rely more on human-generated content. It will start to prioritize peer-led content shared between friends. In this way it hopes to eradicate the problem of troublesome fake news/filter bubble material and create a more rewarding user experience.
The ‘public’ in public relations will always be people. Whether it’s a specific segment of people like news editors or the wider Internet-browsing public the ultimate consumers of our PR activities are real people and not robots. And clients will always want to reach the people who buy their products and services. For this reason, they will continue to need PR agencies to create innovative and engaging campaigns that build relationships with their audiences and their influencers.
The written element is just one of many skills in the PR repertoire. At the end of the day robo-journalism is just another communications tool for the PR industry to embrace and absorb.
Happily, a study by researchers at Oxford University and Deloitte appears to agree. The threat from automation to the public relations profession is just 18%.
It seems we won’t be consigned to history anytime soon.
That reminds me. In history class at school I used to sit at the front. One time we noticed the teacher’s table had a wobbly leg. We couldn’t resist moving the leg further awry. Everything was finely balanced. Moments later the teacher came in. She set a heavy pile of marked homework papers on the table sending the whole thing crashing to the floor.
Sorry Miss – that was me. If it’s any consolation it appears that – hijinks notwithstanding – you did actually teach me something.
1The first industrial revolution, Phyllis Deane (1965)