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AI is Here to Stay: What Does That Mean for Communicators?

We’re now in a continuous news cycle about the arrival of generative artificial intelligence and the apps like ChatGPT that make the technology readily available to the general public. Social media is infested with thousands of “experts” hawking largely debunked ways to “get rich quick” or “revolutionize your business” with one or more of these new tools. For the skeptical among you, this might sound like another crypto scheme or the wild early days of the NFT craze.

You might’ve been able to sit out some of those fads, and you might well choose to ignore the deluge of think pieces the rise of AI has inspired, but you can’t ignore the fact that generative AI technology is here. Automation has arrived in the PR & communications world and is poised to fundamentally change how we do business.

The March of Progress Is Relentless - And That’s a Good Thing

Whether it’s manufacturing, transportation, or just about any other industry you can think of, wherever and whenever automation has been introduced, it has been adopted. You’d be hard-pressed to identify a major industry that has witnessed what automation had to offer, determined it was a fad, and later ditched the technology. And PR and communications won’t be the outlier. Simply put, automation isn’t going to just go away, even if we close our eyes, plug our ears and ignore it.

There are significant productivity, cost, and innovation advantages for agencies and teams that choose to embrace AI. Those that avoid AI altogether are likely to fall significantly behind or eventually die out the same way that those that didn’t attempt to harness the potential of the internet disappeared decades ago.

The question, therefore, is no longer if you should implement AI within your communications agency or in-house team but how you should. It’s important to understand upfront that your relationship with automation is a journey. Our industry isn’t going to be revolutionized overnight, nor should we be turning our business and operating models upside down at the first whiff of new technology.

AI Probably Won’t Take Your Job - But Someone Who Knows How To Use It Might

You don’t need to take drastic measures as long as you’re keeping pace and understanding that you’re at the beginning of what will likely be a years-long process. To be sure, we are very likely in a watershed moment for generative AI in PR & communications, but it’s also not a spontaneous introduction. Automation in certain forms has been a part of our industry for many years now, but AI-powered tools like ChatGPT or image generators, along with their open-source foundations, are certainly catalysts causing the momentum to accelerate.

This sudden acceleration has set off a panic in certain corners that automation “is coming for our jobs.” The thing that drives this knee-jerk reaction is the unwillingness to think about innovation as a journey rather than a series of “all-or-nothing cliff dive” choices. The first response to almost every significant innovation in modern U.S. history has been, “Is my job going to go away?” And if you simply choose to do nothing, maybe it will.

Conversely, agencies that try to race ahead by replacing their people with AI-trained bots will merely be instigating a race to the bottom. For decades, communicators have fought for a seat at the executive table based on the quality and nuance of the strategic advice we provide for organizations. The last thing we want is to become an industry where the only differentiator is who can best enter a prompt into a bot and charge the least amount of money to do so. If the goal becomes to simply churn out maximum volumes of minimally acceptable content at the lowest cost, there aren’t many differences left beyond price.

But there are many options in our industry between doing nothing and replacing every communicator on your team with an AI-powered bot. From talking with other agency heads and clients, I’m confident that the human aspect of our craft will remain a differentiator, and overall organizational reputation will continue to be something entrusted to human experts. Commercial aircraft in 2023 are still flown with two humans in the cockpit, despite significant advances in autopilot systems over the last 30 years that can manage the vast majority of flights with minimal input from human pilots.

Putting AI to Work For Your People: Harnessing Your Inner Jedi

The lesson here for communicators is that if we learn how to leverage AI technology to augment our talented humans, we can gain an advantage over those that choose either to go “all in” or to actively resist AI as an aspect of our industry. Even if you’re not an early adopter, you can still be an early learner and better position yourself, your team, and your organization for the future.

Ultimately, I think the majority of core jobs in the PR & communications industry aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. Talented people are both the highest cost and the greatest asset in our industry. And it’s clear that AI can do incredible things – like collecting in seconds raw data that would take a human operator hours. Or days. Or weeks. And it can do so in a way that strips away bias that can pollute the process when handled by humans. But AI is also limited by its lack of humanity. You can give an AI chatbot a prompt about love, and it may quote you a sonnet. But so much of effective communication is connecting to humans and motivating action. Does an AI know what it’s like to have been in love, be heartbroken, have faith in a higher power, or taste a perfect jamon beurre on a fresh baguette? To paraphrase what Robin Williams said to Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, ChatGPT may know a lot about Michelangelo, but it can’t tell you what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.

Take a talented person, though, and arm them with machine-driven insights and analytical capability? That’s a real superpower and differentiator. It’s Luke Skywalker and R2D2 working together to fly an X-Wing fighter. Send those X-Wings after the Death Star piloted solely by droids or with even exceptionally skilled human pilots alone, and the result is very different. Together, the human/AI collaboration far outperforms either on its own. Each player on the human/machine team can focus on what it does best, freeing the other up to fill their unique role.

The same can be true for the PR & communications industry. We can adopt a similar hybrid model, preserving the craftsmanship and humanity that sets human practitioners apart while capitalizing on how AI can augment that craftsmanship to create a better product for our clients.

So while I don’t believe the widespread adoption of generative AI will result in massive job reductions in our industry, there is pretty solid evidence gleaned from the impact of automation in other sectors that jobs in PR & communications will change and evolve over the next 2-4 years. Professionals who understand how to elicit emotion, motivate people to action, think strategically, drive operational outcomes, and command their AI teammates to gather and analyze supporting data or quality control work products will become the most sought-after communicators. To evolve today’s workforce and prepare tomorrow’s practitioners, we need to send clear signals to universities, industry associations, and professional development programs that this combination of skills is critical.

Be bold, but understand the risks

Beyond that? It’s hard to say with certainty where all this is going. We don’t even know which tools will become the industry standard. For all we know, ChatGPT is the first lemming off the cliff before something better or more capable comes along. There’s the unknown of what happens to proprietary data that’s fed into AI tools and potential credibility issues if AI-generated content is not sufficiently fact-checked. AI is a remarkable tool, but it’s not perfect. But there’s also the risk of moving too slowly and getting left behind.

And all that is OK. Even if we don’t have enough information to make big existential bets, we can learn and experiment with relatively little risk to see what works for ourselves and our organizations.

We can get smarter, faster about industry trends and client-specific background information. We can more easily cut through the noise of the content space we exist in today to only consume what matters most to us. We can incrementally improve and streamline our information gathering and monitoring.

So my best advice is to get started. Don’t wait. Start learning about AI tools and their capabilities. Worst-case scenario, you invest some time in a fad that fizzles out in a few years. But the more likely result is that, by starting to learn and explore the role AI can play in communications today, we will start down a path of becoming more prepared than most to capitalize as AI technology is fully adopted by agencies and client companies, ensuring we – and our jobs – aren’t left behind.

So get out there, find your R2D2, jump in your X-Wing, and start exploring the galaxy today – and may the (AI) force multipliers be with you.

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