Be afraid… Robotic journalism

If you thought influencing journalists was hard, try selling in to robots. Every day, news organisations publish thousands of machine-generated articles. Does this robotic journalism sound the death knell for traditional public relations or does it actually open up a whole new raft of business opportunities?

The world’s insatiable appetite for up-to-the-minute content is driving global media organisations to embrace robot journalism. Thousands of machine-generated articles are being published online every day. Associated Press alone publishes 3,000 machine-generated reports a quarter.

For now, machines may primarily cover sports and financial news, but this will surely expand into other areas. Okay, so a human wrote this story, but how long before we get to the algorithmic feature article? And what on earth will that mean for the public relations professional?

Automated Insights, based in North Carolina, US, is at the forefront of robotic journalism. Its Wordsmith platform (which AP deploys to generate its stories) analyses data and writes thousands of news and sports reports online. The platform works off a pre-written set of rules (the “training set”) that Wordsmith then uses to spot patterns and trends in raw data, and describe those findings in plain language.

Automated Insights founder Robbie Allen explains: “If we take sport as an example, when a game completes we get a feed of all the statistics relating to that game. We then compute all of the data and our engine processes the information into natural language.” Wordsmith generated one billion stories in 2014.

Even at this scale, Allen insists that his technology will not put communications professionals out of work. Quite the opposite. “We’re helping to produce articles that wouldn’t have existed in the first place,” he says. “These are reports that nobody was responsible for before. Journalists still provide coverage when there’s a story that is more than just numbers.”

Geoffrey Davies, Principal Lecturer in journalism at the University of Westminster, strongly agrees: “Robots cannot interview the distraught mother, tell the story of the father throwing baby out the window, speak to the fireman who caught the baby, get the photo and raise questions about why it is the third gas explosion in the street that year.” Communications is  – or at least it should be – a creative business, says Davies. “Until the robots can do that, I think we all have a future, of sorts.”

Scaling communications

With the power to create personalised content on a huge scale, Allen believes machine journalism could be a huge boon for the communications industry. He is already talking to public relations companies about his technology. He remains guarded on the specific applications, but you can see a potential future role in generating more formulaic press collateral such as press releases. “If you have all the elements of a press release captured in some sort of data format, then it could be automated, freeing up people’s time to do other work,” says Allen.

While content-automation is currently being used by large organisations, Allen predicts it will soon become accessible to individuals. “It will be available for anyone with an interest in automating content, meaning that even the smallest communications agency or individual public relations professional will be able to greatly increase their reach.”

Embrace the machine

Morgan McLintic, executive vice-president of Lewis PR believes the public relations sector should embrace robot writers.

“Technology disrupts every industry it touches,” says McLintic. “We’re all witnessing how the internet is changing the economics of publishing, so why would public relations be any different?” There are whole swathes of communications activity that could be automated, from social media monitoring to measurement to information-sharing, freeing up time for creativity. “No- one is suggesting that strategy or relationship-building can be automated ­– society isn’t ready for a relationship with robots. That movie never ends well.”

Futurologist and trends expert William Higham agrees that technology will give public relations practitioners the data and tools to become more analytical and strategic.“The smarter machines get, the more they will be able to learn what specific clients, publications and editors are looking for.” This combination of data insight and the human touch could, if practised well, be very powerful. “The more the industry shows their skill in humanising their clients rather than robotically press-releasing them, the more public relations will be able to avoid a robotic takeover in the future.”

Longer term, might advances in machine-to-machine communication see the rise of a robotic media industry where public relations robots pitch stories to robot journalists? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. Gartner estimates that this year 4.9 billion connected things will be in use, up 30% on 2014 and likely to hit 25 billion by 2020. In a startup somewhere, far-sighted communications professionals are probably already developing new public relations algorithms that can “influence” robotic journalists. Do send us the launch press release…

This article by Hannah Baker was originally published in Influence magazine, Q1 2016.

Image courtesy of wikimedia


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