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The Future of PR has never been better, or worse

The public relations industry is not being left out of the digital innovation wave, but the need for the human touch – especially when reputations are at stake – will remain as important today as it always has.  Algorithms can tell you how your message is received by your audiences in a more accurate way than anything that has been tried in market research before. Algorithms can predict the reaction of your audiences, and help you smartly push messages to very specific audiences. Media monitoring is a good example of ‘bots’ in action, where a piece of software seamlessly sends articles on your clients as they are published and gives you real-time analysis of how many people have read your tweet. All this at the touch of one button without the need for any human involvement.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is certainly giving PR professionals the market intelligence they need to do their job well. The implication is counterintuitive – you need people with human skills to make use of the vast intelligence that technology now avails cheaply and translate it into value for your client. AI does not replace people. It takes people to fix things and express the necessary empathy and depth of understanding – especially when those people may be in the middle of a media storm. It is the why that AI will never be able to help us with. Why people love your brand often has no rhyme nor reason. Sometimes it is ‘just because’. It can, of course, be analysed using AI, which will still give you more of the who, what, when, how, where, but will never competently answer the why or the ‘so what’ questions upon which the ultimate solutions hinge.

No matter what the future may hold from a technology perspective – it will always take a flesh and blood human being to understand the nuances behind a brand, its culture and ethos and to map out the strategic tactics to make it thrive. Similarly, when that brand is under pressure in the market or even worse, in the eye of a media storm – who are you going to call? I doubt it will ever be Mr Bot, however much intelligence is wired into his hard drive. The real answers will be teased out of data, from listening to people, observing people’s responses to words, understanding the underlying meaning of symbols, among others. You begin to understand why despite ‘doing everything right’, your client’s reputation has sunk. As important is that fixing the problem requires a language that AI does not understand. For all the razzmatazz the PR industry is stereotyped with, reputation management is very much a game of strategic silence. Much like your eyes can see only if there is light, AI can only see data and silence is like darkness.

In the real world, people live in living rooms, they sing in the shower, they cry over nothing, are jealous of the neighbours’ brand-new set of wheels, they fake happiness, they lie through their teeth, will be driven to fight like Muhammad Ali if you threaten their children. To accurately interpret the real life ‘data’ from these very human truths, one needs to experience it. People mimic similar things on social media. Looking at Instagram will make you think the world is a happy, stylish and prosperous place where life is lived in full-colour. It takes a 60-year-old woman who has been married to the same man since her teens to tell you how the institution of marriage has changed.

AI is removed from actual human behaviour. Communication is about using words and symbols to change the behaviour and feelings of people. People are different. Sometimes the people you are dealing with are not a socio-demographic cluster. They are a real human being that has spent 28 of his/her 30-year career running tough logistics operations, where profit is made if a customer receives a pair of shoes bought online in ‘3-5 working days’. For him/her, things either work or they do not. Her Board Chairman is a person who comes from an industry where things work on probability and risk, while a major investor is a 35-year-old billionaire from a country where CEOs are cool. It is easy to see where AI belongs. Geek won’t help you figure the person that 38 high performances years moulded.

Where all this goes is counter-intuitive. AI makes it unnecessary for human beings to do work that AI can now do. For years, careers have been built on people getting machine-like levels of competence. AI has flipped the game. Machines today try to be like people too. People should leave machines to do what machines do well and focus on doing human things. What this means is that even as they invest in tech, the investment only makes sense if it is matched by human talent to translate it into something valuable that will make a meaningful difference in the lives of living and breathing human beings. In fact, the rise of AI demands that agencies show more empathy to people and their struggles, internally and externally.

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