6 Questions on AI and Its Future Applications

June 1, 2018


I recently went to one of the largest AI conferences in the world, Nvidia. My goal was to attend the optimal mix of talks spanning several industries. I learned a great deal about AI’s impact on health care, cars, financial services, graphics and the workforce of the future.

But as rewarding as the conference was, I was disappointed by the lack of AI talks and case studies relating to marketing and, more specifically, to public relations. When it came to this gathering of top minds in machine learning, the marketing communications sector seemed to be off the collective radar. It struck me as a missed opportunity because, of course, AI has potential to transform and improve the way we work as PR practitioners.

My lead client contact (an undisputed pioneer in AI and a former NASA rocket scientist) offered a reassuring explanation for the void: Public relations is built on relationships and uniquely human areas of ingenuity and creativity.

On one level, it was just what I wanted to hear. I am excited about AI’s applications, yet uneasy about the realities of it augmenting — or perhaps even replacing — us.

Nonetheless, AI is here and it isn’t going away. So how can we effectively harness it? Let’s consider the following questions:

Where are we using AI already?

Many of our media monitoring platforms currently use AI for functions like sentiment analysis of news and conversations on social platforms. If you’re selecting a new vendor, then be sure to ask about their capabilities.

Push and experiment with the platform before selling it to a client. What looks like a whiz-bang widget doesn’t always convey meaningful information. But the goal is to lean on current vendors for solutions before creating something from scratch or shopping around for new AI-driven platforms.

What are we spending too much time on or too many resources on?

Some PR vets will wince as I reference the term “clip counting.” Raise your hand if you’ve ever measured a news placement with a ruler to calculate advertising equivalency value. Thankfully, those days are behind us. Yet even today’s processes around results measurement, analysis and visualization can make me cringe. I see how many hours it adds up to for my teams.

Let’s implement technologies to ensure that we spend more of our time producing the actual results and developing strategic insights instead of toiling away on data collection and assembly.

I’m also eager to see how AI rolls out as it relates to human resources. The talent war grows more brutal by the day in agency life, so we would appreciate and utilize anything that can help us more effectively find quality employees. And once we’ve hired someone new, we often spend a lot of time reviewing how roles, responsibilities and people are allocated. While the data is organized and systemized, the process remains surprisingly manual.

I welcome AI if it can make us smarter about harnessing our people and leveraging capacity, while allowing us to become more profitable. Sign me up.

Will this complement or complicate our workflow?

I just gave an example of how AI could make us more efficient. But the tools need to be efficient, too. Can they plug into our existing technologies and ways of working? Are they intuitive? Do they learn quickly? Or are they standalone systems that don’t play nicely with our current technology platforms?

Time and again, in industries like health care, I’ve seen that shadow infrastructure can cost organizations millions of dollars — and that some new systems sit unused if they aren’t compatible. Let’s avoid this when it comes to AI implementation in public relations.

How can technologies enhance our storytelling techniques?

Language is our currency in public relations. My teams quickly learn that if they send me a media pitch without a killer subject line (or three), then I will slash it with my editing sword.

However, AI can theoretically learn from reporters’ news coverage over time and help us tailor our messages to appeal to them better. And this can apply to A/B message testing to hit the right note with key audiences. I’m still cautious in my optimism here, but if the natural language-processing technologies ultimately make us smarter and savvier, then I will be all for their implementation.

Another related example: The Associated Press uses the tool Wordsmith from Automated Insights to draft stories on data-packed stories (like corporate earnings). This enabled the outlet to produce 12 times the content that it had before. And aside from a small publishing note at the bottom, most people would never know that an algorithm produced these stories.

So many of our clients ask us to mine data and create compelling, media-friendly narratives based on needles in the statistical haystacks. While I do often relish this type of task (if I have time, my favorite highlighter and a nice glass of wine) the AP case encourages me. I’d consider outsourcing the first round of that data sifting and copywriting if it means that we can synthesize information faster and smarter moving forward.

What will we defend until the end?

I agree with my client that a lot of public relations is “human” territory. While I’m interested in how AI can help us optimize content, I won’t be pitching The New York Times with a byline that I’ve outsourced to a machine anytime soon.

AI isn’t closing the deal at the end of a new business meeting. And it can’t counsel in times of crisis. While automation can assist us, we must continually prove our invaluable, irreplaceable skills — just as we’ve done every other time that a pundit has said public relations is dead.

How do we secure a frontline position?

You may be making headlines with AI for your clients’ pioneering use cases. But if you’re not actively implementing this technology into your own workflow, then now’s the time.

Add artificial intelligence to your next leadership discussion. Seek out online courses, vendors and events on the topic. And start experimenting.

I’d caution all of us to remember the advent of social media and the agencies who quickly became domain experts and seized opportunities — as well as the ones who were left in the dust.

Be anxious or excited about AI and public relations. But don’t make the mistake of ignoring it.

Kathleen Reynolds

Kathleen Reynolds, vice president of client services at CooperKatz & Co., is passionate about creating and unleashing inspired solutions to any communications challenge. She leads strategy for many clients at the intersection of artificial intelligence and industry-specific applications.


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