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Running the AI Marathon

How Comms Leaders Can Navigate AI's Changing Landscape

Ever since OpenAI released ChatGPT 3.5 to the public in November 2022, new AI tools have proliferated and PR and comms has felt somewhat like the Wild West. Not only have we seen the rapid deployment of specialist AI teams, but also the rollout and testing of new strategies, new visual styles and AI-generated copy.

Perhaps it’s because PR and comms professionals often wear the hats of futurist, trend-spotter, early adopter and tech-champion that so many are stepping into the future –with a minority forgetting some of the lessons our industry has learned and doctrines we’ve founded. As we collectively turn our attention to AI, communicators need to take a more principled and strategic approach. The Barcelona Principles should be reflected in how we measure the impact and influence of AI in our work. The Helsinki Declaration should inform how we apply AI to our work in ethical ways, using it responsibly with clients and audiences in mind.

What we all need to consider when it comes to AI – and any tech advancement that looks like it could revolutionize our way of work – is that this is a marathon, not a sprint. Comms leaders and PR professionals should embrace AI with optimism and take a structured approach to using it, but not with so much energy that they run off-course, away from their long-term strategy and brand values. Our professional organizations are already setting out guiding principles, and we should all be working to agree on and take up these well-founded approaches

Guidelines and guardrails – don’t go it alone

Just because generative AI tools can act as sounding boards, or complete quick-turns on prompts and requests for content, doesn’t mean there’s no longer a need to bring in fellow professionals. The output of generative AI tools should, for the most part, be treated as first drafts before you review and develop the work with your colleagues. Take the opportunity to share your AI experiments, methods and findings with each other so that everyone benefits from the lessons you learn.

Many industry associations, organizations and media have published perspectives on generative AI, with a number of them publishing guidelines on AI and its use. Consider these in your practice. With AI for PR and comms still in its relative infancy, these whitepapers aren’t long, but they’re invaluable.

In the United States, the PR Council have produced some excellent guidance for agencies, with their Generative AI Ethical Guidelines. From accuracy to integrity, the guidance within is highly relevant, and communicators would do well to keep them in mind as they integrate AI into their own work.

In the United Kingdom, the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) continues its long-running series of reports on AI in PR and communications, with reports ranging from readiness through implementation and impact.

And, as with any boom in interest and uptake of new tech, regulation is close behind. Many governments are conducting investigations and studies into how AI can be used safely, ethically and competitively, as are intergovernmental and non-governmental organizations. I’d strongly advise business leaders who are dipping their toes in the AI waters to look at the regulations in their own market and in the markets where they operate.

In April 2023, the AI Governance Alliance of the World Economic Forum convened “Responsible AI Leadership: A Global Summit on Generative AI,” in San Francisco to address the boom in interest and adoption of AI. Bringing together leaders in business, governance and regulation, the alliance’s new report and microsite has published 30 action-oriented recommendations, which leaders would do well to read and heed. These recommendations do more than act as guardrails to keep business on the right side of current and under-consideration regulation – they also give a useful nod at what might be on the horizon from your competition.

Think beyond the horizon

A lot of the enthusiasm surrounding AI has centered on short-term wins and the current capabilities of generative AI, but brands and communicators engaging with AI need to be prepared for the long term.

WE’s recent research in partnership with the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations found that only 16% of communications professionals say they are extremely knowledgeable about how AI could be applied to comms. With so many brands rushing into AI – and so few communicators feeling like they have a solid grasp on its risks and rewards, applications and opportunities, there’s a real danger of implementation failures and drifting from once-purposeful business strategies.

Good communications strategy starts at home, and this now includes how we engage with and tell stories about AI. Your approach to generative AI must align with your brand strategy and your wider business strategy, and its deployment needs to connect back to your brand values and purpose. Brands that claim to be customer-centric but then launch half-baked customer-facing chatbots, or dilute their once-bold brand identity with AI-generated content will risk accusations of inauthenticity and throwing away hard-earned brand equity for something created quicker or cheaper.

Instead, as you consider your AI strategy, you must consider how AI can help you achieve your business goals, with audience personas in mind, without compromising on your established brand values.

A good example of this – and one that was quick off the mark with its launch in February 2023 – is Spotify’s AI DJ. The music streaming platform has long used big data and user profiling to generate curated playlists of recommendations, but their new AI DJ, “X,” makes that curation even more personal for audiophiles. X is inspired by radio DJs, interjecting every few songs to guide users through their listening experience with notes on artists or suggestions, making the listening experience feel more personal. This is clearly a user-centered experience, and it connects back to Spotify’s business strategy by fostering deeper engagement with the brand and its featured artists.

Build your AI fluency

To build-up your AI readiness, get familiar with what’s out there. Investigate tools such as ChatGPT, Microsoft Bing, Google’s Bard and Midjourney. Identify not only what they do well, but also scrutinize where they fall short of the standards you’d set yourself. If the AI you’re testing doesn’t make the grade, see what else is out there. By taking an iterative, query-based mindset and approaching AI tools with specific actions and goals in mind, you’ll have a better understanding of how you can use AI to enhance or augment what you’re already doing well.

A really great example of this is Aiko and Aiden, the two AI interns “hired” by WE Communications agency, Codeword. Created using AI tools and reporting into senior creative and editorial colleagues, the Codeword team was able to engage with the AI interns to lighten their own workloads, handing off on more repetitive or low-value tasks. In the process, the team gained a deeper understanding of what the AI tools were capable of. During the 6-month internships, the Codeword team came to understand how Aiko and Aiden – and, by extension, generative AI – could provide useful support and where true human creativity was the only option.

Today, generative AI can be an incredibly useful resource for communicators and creatives who need to build up ideas, or to conquer a blank page, before bringing in colleagues, collaborators or clients. Bear in mind, however, that it isn’t creative in and of itself. Built on large data sets, generative AI tools only synthesize or reconstitute ideas that are already out there. It’s down to us to bring the true creativity to the table, coming up with the ideas, charting a new direction, and acting as an editor, director or curator to cut through to the best outputs.

Be cautiously optimistic

When WE Communications fielded our research that led to the Fascinated and Frightened AI Readiness Playbook, we found that 88% of comms leaders believe AI will have a positive impact on their work, especially in terms of workload reduction. Further, 55% believe that AI will positively impact their creativity, either by giving them back time in the day or by sparking new creative thoughts.

If the crowded field of communicators considering AI is split into ‘fascinated’ and ‘frightened’ I’m running with the optimists. But, as any seasoned runner will advise, pace yourself. As we all deepen our understanding of AI’s capabilities and limitations, we need to avoid overpromising and underdelivering. Instead, flip the script – take a measured approach, promise lightly, and surprise and delight with the positive results that you deliver.

Sci-fi series and blockbusters have often cast AI as the villain, but there are so many ways in which it’s already changing the world for the better. Research published in The Lancet Digital Health show how AI can be deployed to detect Alzheimer’s using low-cost retinal photography, reducing the diagnosis gap between privileged and deprived communities. AI architectures are being used to develop more sustainable models of e-ecotourism, making sustainable travel and tourism more scalable and accessible.

The PR and communications industry should be engaging with AI, investigating its limitations, working to make what we do more effective, trying to create work of greater impact and influence.

In recognizing the risks and threats of AI, we also have the opportunity to strengthen our own weak spots. If you find that the work you’re doing could be supplanted by AI, consider how you can leverage AI to enhance what you do, rather than resign yourself to the risk of obsolescence.

Groundbreaking developments like AI lay the track for us to create deeply engaging, award-winning work. By taking strategic, structured approaches to AI, collaborating with peers and listening to the advice of industry experts, we all have the opportunity to set a new personal best.

Don’t get left behind.

September 27, 2023