Required skills in PR are evolving: We need AI innovators

By Kerry Sheehan, chair of the AIinPR Panel.

Artificial intelligence poses one of the biggest reputation risks to businesses, organisations and brands and as automation and AI adoption now accelerates.

In recent years, AI has been positioned as one of the biggest commercial opportunities for global economies.

Pre the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK Government Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) estimated that AI could add an additional £630billion to the UK economy by 2035.

AI is set to be more widely used during the recovery and post pandemic in the UK and across most global economies, including the emerging ones. AI’s role and importance will not be diminishing anytime soon.

The current climate is seeing leaders looking to leverage the momentum of digital transformation to reduce costs through automation and looking to gain value from data to stay competitive in the new economic landscape we now find ourselves in.

The industry and sector agnostic nature of AI means the impact will be felt by every area and it is not limited to the companies that develop the AI tools and technologies.

AI in public relations should be used to boost productivity in the process-driven areas of the role, freeing us up for what matters most – strategy, leadership, ethics and creativity.

AI, our intelligent assistant, our augmented friend, will enable us to increase our competitiveness through the development of new or improved services within the communications and engagement function, enabling us to provide improved services and also better tailored to customer, audience and employee need.

Be it through improved automation and AI-enabled tools for many areas including, media monitoring, social mapping and listening, stakeholder management, programme and project management, automated content for a range of internal and external purposes, including moving business, organisations and brands towards more owned content and becoming their own news publishers, or virtual, conversational assistants, chatbots or curators.

There is no magical AI platform a communicator can purchase or build in-house to instantly do all the process-driven things in our roles. Rather than look for one overarching solution, it’s always best to consider specific, component tasks within the process that a machine can help with.

The key is once you’ve done the education and you understand the basics of being able to identify opportunities for intelligent automation, then you can go about prioritising the areas of your PR and communications service/function which can utilise it.

More or less immediately, you can get a competitive and time advantage by using a smarter AI solution.

The media environment is also changing at pace with more automation and AI-driven content, using AI to scrape trending social content for news items and using AI to read press releases and sending the journalists and editors key content lines to assess, saving time.

Just recently, we have seen more journalists losing jobs as publishers favour more automated content and the role of human journos is evolving more towards one of content moderation.

It goes without saying where the media goes, PR must keep up.

We must be abreast of these changes to the media landscape and our approach to media relations, and the now innovation required in our roles to stay ahead of the game in this area and all areas.

Yet despite these well-documented opportunities and AIinPR banging the upskilling drum to the UK and global PR industry for the past three years and stating, with full endorsement and support of the Alan Turing Institute and the Confederation of British Industry, ‘PR is sleepwalking into AI’, we have still not seen automation or AI tools adoption happening or at pace or at scale.

It has been the same picture throughout the history of the industry. PR has always lagged behind other professions in adopting any innovation, any tech innovation let alone at scale.

PR is already behind the other professions in AI education and upskilling and the gap looks to now be widening.

It’s imperative we close this gap whilst we can, particularly now the business mandate globally, accelerated due to the pandemic, is innovation. For many that will mean automation and seeing what/where AI may be able to support bring down costs and streamline operations.

AI represented a significant opportunity for the PR profession before the pandemic hit. But it is now an accelerated growing market. In addition to boosting productivity and optimisation, the business and organisational leaders we advise and guide are also now gaining more insight into the power of having data and what and how it could be used for automation and AI.

Just as the UK and global workforce is setting about gaining the key skills to reap the full benefit of AI deployment, the PR workforce should be too.

As well as working smarter, faster in our own roles, if PRs do not know data and AI inside out and the ethical challenges and the fundamentals of data, AI and machine learning for business, how can we advise the C-Suite on adoption, build and deployment discussing its full business case, let alone mitigate against the biggest reputation risk to our own roles and to business we have seen in recent times?

We can’t. PR has a known shortage of skills that are crucial to advise and guide business on automation and AI successfully.

PR needs innovators who can work closely with designers, social and data scientists, tech developers from the onset to develop AI-led products, tools, services and process which are not only easy to use but are ethical, socially and employee beneficial and, ultimately, cause no harm.

PRs must be able to engage effectively with AI ethics to mitigate risks and ultimately ensure trust and reputations remain in-tact and, ultimately, are built on. Practitioners must be part of all AI ideas and build teams, holding them to account by asking those tough ethical questions on data bias as well as organisational and individual bias, as well as supporting to business to upskill in attitude and application.

If the people working on AI tools, products and services don’t resemble the society, the audiences they will be serving, their inventions are supposed to transform, then that is not good AI – and we shouldn’t have it.

Increasing diversity in AI needs to move from just talk to actually doing something about it – and this is not just about coding, it is also about the boardrooms where the decisions on automation and AI are being made.  Communicators are in a good seat at the table, or have a voice up to the top, to be able to ensure the right decisions are made, based on ethics, trust, transparency and with all of these areas ensuring reputation is at the forefront.

We must support to drive business forward – we are no longer in our own swim lanes – and that clearly includes the now accelerated mandate for automation and AI.

We should confidently and strongly advocate collaboration for all AI ideas, build and deployment teams in-house and those bought in. To be truly diverse and ensure we are not deliberately deploying potentially harmful or discriminatory algorithms, like ones we have already seen ‘going wrong’ out there, we should shout loud, in our roles as guardians of the truth and leaders on ethics.

We should ensure those who will be using the AI-enabled products, tools or services have user groups as part of the ideas and build teams which again are representative and ensure not only diversity but transparency. Collaborative stakeholder input on all AI builds – collaboration by representation.

The other role for PR is to support business to understand the need to translate ethical principles – all AI builds should have a code of ethical principles – into organisational practice.

There are several already publicised and freely available ethical standards designed for businesses and organisations adopting an ethical, responsible approach to their AI development.

The AIinPR global panel will soon publish an AI in PR Ethics Guide, a global first, to support communicators with the tough ethical questions and decisions AI brings.

Trustworthy and purposeful businesses, organisations and brands will be those who clearly and transparently demonstrate they have developed AI responsibly and communicate it effectively.

To be able to do that and lead and guide business effectively, and elevate PRs role as a strategic management function, we must now become au fait with data, automation and AI in our own roles and within that of the business, organisations and brands we serve at a detailed level or risk getting left further behind.

Follow #AIinPR for more.

Kerry Sheehan, Chart.PR, FCIPR, is chair of the AIinPR Panel, a member of the International Data Science Foundation, and a board member of We and AI educating on the risks and rewards of AI.

Photo by Alex Iby on Unsplash

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