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AI and the Future of PR

WE Communications Blog: Technology

4/3/2019
— Melissa Waggener Zorkin, CEO 

Last week, in addition to attending the Board of Advisors meeting at USC Annenberg Center for PR in Los Angeles, I attended the 29th annual Kenneth Owler Smith Symposium on Public Relations. There, I had the opportunity to moderate a panel discussion on findings from Annenberg’s most recent Global Communications Report with three amazing industry colleagues: Edith Moy, a managing editor at Bloomberg; Gary Brotman, the head of AI strategy at Qualcomm; and Alex Smith, a data-visualization engineer at Zignal. Together, we asked: How will technology, and particularly AI, shape our work as communicators — now and in the future?

As it turns out, the better question might be: How won’t technology and AI shape our work? And as they do, how can we be sure to use them thoughtfully, in ways that boost our humanity instead of undermining it? 

Here’s what our panel concluded: We need both technology and people to make the best of both. AI might be able to repeat information, but humans tell stories. Information is important — but stories make us who we are.  This validates my own personal conviction, which was also shared by our panel which clearly came at the topic from all sides.

 

The evolution of technology in communications

I’ve been a communications strategist my whole life, with writing being one core fundamental, and yet sometimes it’s easy to forget how I’ve been a writer. The tools I use — and how I use them — have changed enormously. PCs have replaced word processors, which replaced typewriters, which replaced black-and-white composition books. Even pencil sharpeners have changed. (Be honest: when is the last time you used one of these?)   

Today, as I sit down at my laptop and click open a new Word doc and start typing, the tech I use is like the air I breathe: I barely even think about it. When I misspell “daiquiri” or “privilege” — or even “misspell” — that red squiggle sends up a helpful warning flare; when my subjects and verbs disagree, the grammar checker steps in to save the day.   

What’s next? We already have talk-to-text ability. What if, as you’re interviewing someone, an app on your phone doesn’t just record the conversation like a court stenographer, but edits and shapes it into prose? What if AI could organize that same conversation into subjects so that you can easily survey everything that was said? With machine learning, your thesis could emerge just from the algorithm designed to label and rate words and phrases.

All those things are pretty amazing, and potentially very helpful — but they aren’t writing. Writing is context, not just content. AI might be able to tell you what was said in that interview, but it can’t fill in the gaps or connect the dots. Our computers might have brains, but they don’t have guts — and as storytellers, our gut instinct will always be our most important tool.

 

New skills, old instincts

Yes, we are all going to have to adapt to new technologies and embrace them to remain competitive. That’s not going to shock anyone. Machines can do so much to analyze and predict, but humans are always going to need to translate data into insights.

Before my panel at the Annenberg School, Google executive (and former WE staffer!) Corey duBrowa gave a keynote talk in which he said something simple but staggering: that the purpose of every Google innovation is to be helpful. What does that mean? It means tech can’t do its work without people to give it purpose. In fact, Corey said his co-creators keep one word at the heart of all their decisions: people. (As his former boss, I couldn’t have been prouder.)

And it’s inarguable. Tools don’t mean much without people. Curing disease, running a small business, finding a job in communications, broadcasting stories of inspiration, all of these things become easier with technology, but it is people at the heart of the purpose.

When I think about AI, I think about how all of our tools help make us more efficient, but they don’t replace what matters most: our ability to be critical thinkers. The panelists discussed the reality of our jobs in PR: certainly some mundane, un-sexy work that humans don’t need to do. AI is about efficiency. It’s great at working with big data, but people are much better at interpreting big data into small data - insights, storytelling and making gut decisions. AI makes things faster, so people can do bigger and better things.

What this means is that AI shouldn’t be threatening to communications professionals. It’s a tool; not a competitor.

AI doesn’t ask “why?” That’s our job.

AI doesn’t have a conscience, but we do. 

 

A hopeful future

After the panel I had a chance to talk with three young students who came here from China — full-fledged members of the tech generation. I asked them what they most wanted to achieve in their careers, and they said they wanted to be instrumental in making sure that the truth is heard. AI can’t do that — but people can. 

I took that as the most positive sign that while we don’t know where the journey will take us, the future is in good hands.