AI in PR: The missed opportunity?

2.20.20 / 4 min read

The PR and Communications industry has a rich history supporting executives and government officials’ needs to be well-informed. In the last decade, the field has gone through a huge transformation, with the sources of information that could affect different brands and organisations increasing exponentially in volume and speed. Moreover, we are witnessing a complete change in information consumption patterns. For example, 20 years ago, probably only a handful of publications could have a truly meaningful impact on the reputation of most companies. Today, this could not be further from the truth. While those handful of publications are still critically important, there are so many other sources constantly creating content coming from all different mediums that could potentially damage any personal or organisational brand. In fact, especially in the case of international organisations, they need to “follow the sun”, always being on top of the global news from multiple geographies and in several languages. In this day and age, when brand perspective and public opinion can push individuals and companies to stardom or damage even the biggest empires, this is the reality that the industry has to not only deal with, but thrive in.

The public perception and reputation of a brand, their competitors and their industry is a critical aspect of any business and should be at the center of its strategic thinking. For example, all brands should be aware of any major shifts in their industry so that they are able to change their own positioning, messaging and direction accordingly. Unfortunately, the new reality, driven by the changes on information creation and consumption, is forcing PR professionals to focus on more tactical, and even mundane, tasks instead of using their expertise to full effect. The ugly truth is that they can often spend most of their day on tasks like counting mentions and producing reports. What is worse, some of this work is sometimes aimed at proving their department’s worth rather than focused on producing actionable insight for the organisation.

I believe Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the tool that will empower professionals in the industry to focus and be more effective on strategic initiatives that could provide huge value to the business, whilst at the same time removing their fear of not being up-to-date or missing critical coverage. More specifically, the combination of AI and human expertise is the solution to many of the challenges the industry faces. This symbiosis between AI and humans in order to improve each other is what we refer to as Augmented Intelligence.

It is true that AI has been positioned as a silver bullet before but I know it can actually help solve some of the challenges of the PR industry, not in 10 years, but in the immediate future. If we go to the foundation of the PR and Communications industry, I would argue that there are five main high level objectives, given a set of brands, people, areas of interest and audience they care about.

  • Increase public awareness
  • Understand the public perception and reputation
  • Change the public perception
  • Predict the changes in public perception given a potential event
  • Identify meaningful changes on public perception

Despite these high-level strategic goals, PR professionals tend to focus most of their time just monitoring their main brand. My argument here is that while I understand that tracking the public perception and reputation of their own brand is the main priority, Augmented Intelligence would allow the industry to also spend more time shaping that perception and working on identifying potential risks and opportunities within the industry, as well as understanding their competitors better. This will allow the PR and Communications function to produce actionable insights that will support multiple areas of the business and power decisions across the organisation, putting back PR at the center of strategic decision-making.

Before exploring some of the most strategic opportunities and how AI can support them, I wanted to focus on how it is solving one of the main fears in the industry. Nothing matters more than getting every piece of content about their own brand, as soon as it is published. Unless AI is used extensively to achieve this, I believe there will not be any spare time to focus on more strategic work. The current volume, speed and diversity of data is just too big and complex for monitoring to be handled manually. Not only will this be slower than an automatic approach (potentially losing the ability to shape a story before it becomes mainstream) but it will be prohibitively expensive if applied to world-scale content. In addition, against popular belief, the quality will not be perfect because humans are fallible, especially when they are poorly trained, underpaid or under stress.

Tracking brands is, at the same time, the most critical task and the one with the least creativity and strategic thinking associated with it. Current advancements in fields like Natural Language Processing (NLP) allow computers to detect mentions of companies with incredible accuracy while allowing almost infinite scalability with the number of articles processed. All of this can be done within seconds, with content in multiple formats coming from all over the world in different languages. An alternative to this solution is to use either too simplistic or horribly complicated boolean keyword queries. The former will not miss any mention but will provide potentially thousands of matches every single day with not many of them actually being relevant. The latter will require days, if not weeks of careful crafting to provide a good balance of accuracy and coverage and it will be extremely costly to manage and change in the future if the context of the brand or the public discourse changes. Neither of these alternatives is scalable nor appropriate for the future of PR and instead, this step should be handled by an AI solution capable of identifying specific brands and distinguishing their mentions from similarly named concepts (e.g., articles about Apple, the technology company, instead of articles about the fruit).

Augmented Intelligence will allow the PR industry to regain its strategic influence, but the first step is to allow PR professionals to be able to focus on strategic initiatives by automating as much as possible the most tactical tasks. This is possible by combining the latest developments in AI with the human expertise already available, although currently misused on tactical tasks, in the industry.