PR Automation: Will Robots Replace PR People?

In 2004, Frank Levy & Richard Murnane published a book called Why people still matter. It deals with the challenges of automation and its impact on employment. The authors referred to driving as one example of a task that could never be fully automated because there are too many parameters that require even the simplest commands, such as “turn left”. Their elaborate and convincing argument did not discourage Google, which only six years later presented a series of fully automated Toyota Prius. Lately, we’ve been reading about an increasing number of self-driving cars on American roads and the struggles of legislators in government offices who have to adapt the laws for a future in which no human will need to drive again.

Google car
Google’s automated car doesn’t give a damn about what Levy and Murnane said

But if it took only ten years for a textbook example of that which cannot happen to happen, what chance do any of us have? And is it dangerous for the PR industry?

There are two approaches to the advancements in the area of automation and AI. Some prominent thinkers welcome our robot overlords and claim that scientific advancements in these fields will mean heaven on Earth, while others argue for adopting a more careful approach, warning that we might be rushing into a dystopian, Terminator-like future.

But the question of our survival in the AI-dominated world is still too abstract. Instead of focusing on such big issues, we should be paying more attention to the things that are happening as we speak: more and more jobs are becoming obsolete due to automation. Robots cost less, are more efficient in doing manual tasks, compute much faster than humans, and don’t require vacation days or health benefits.

Scientists from Oxford University have recently published a research paper in which they examined how susceptible jobs are to computerization. According to their research, PR specialists have an 18% chance of being replaced by computers in the next 20 years.

This is on the lower side, so—apparently—we’re pretty safe, especially in comparison to some other professions, like accounting or modeling, for which the research estimates a 99% chance that they will no longer exist in 2033. But did you know what makes PR people safe(r)?

1. Computers have no social skills

While computers can crunch massive amounts of data, they still can’t engage in a proper one-on-one conversation. Anyone who’s ever received an automated reply from a Twitter bot can testify to that.

The computer has yet to pass the Turing test. The Turing test, developed by Alan Turing in 1950, is a test of a machine’s ability to exhibit intelligent behavior equivalent to, or indistinguishable from, that of a human. Such a machine would be able to convince a human talking to it that the human is, in fact, talking to another human. Creating a computer that would pass the Turing test is a dream of many programmers. Every so often, there is news that a computer was able to pass it, but it turned out that results were manipulated. The computer introduced itself as a child or a foreigner, which explained mistakes in language and logic.

What makes us safe is the fact that the core of public relations is still one-on-one communication with journalists and other stakeholders.

Language is not just exchanging information with the other side. There is a certain dose of empathy involved, along with context, common social background, tone of voice, and implied (connotative) meaning. This is incredibly easy for humans, and yet incredibly hard for computers.

2. Creativity is harder than manual work

Imagination still cannot be programmed. However, much like with self-driving cars, this does not stop programmers from trying. Last year, a robot was shortlisted for a short story contest in Japan.
We cannot predict whether robots will start writing better press releases than humans, but there are several engineers that are already trying to make this happen.

But PR is not only about distribution, it’s also about creative thinking. It takes imagination to find interesting angles on events or clients, more than it takes to write facts and fill out press release templates. Good PR professionals will put more emphasis on some parts of the story, and withhold those which might be less important, or those which could have a negative impact on their client’s reputation. It takes creativity to think up PR stunts like staging a false protest during a competitor’s conference or to think up strategies. As with language, context is something that is hard for programs to grasp. Computers operate in a black-and-white, factual environment, but people don’t. As Brene Brown said, “We want to believe that we are thinking, rational people and on occasion tangle with emotion, flick it out of the way, and go back to thinking. That is not the truth. The truth is we are emotional beings who on occasion think.”

Communication is more than writing subject-verb-object, if-this-then-that sentences. For better or worse, the biggest value of PR professionals is that they know how to persuade their audience by getting in touch with their deepest emotions.

3. PR is already embracing automation

Repetitive tasks in PR are already heavily automated. If it’s a boring, unimaginative, and kind of a brain-dead task, there’s quite a chance a software/hardware can do it. In the past, those jobs were most often delegated to younger staff or interns. Entry-level positions included tasks like media list building, sending out press releases, checking with reporters if they got the release, as well as the tedious practice of manual media analysis. Today, these jobs can mostly be automated or at least semi-automated, making it possible for every team member to take on more challenging tasks.

Take Prowly for instance. Building relationships with journalists takes time, which we rarely have. The simplest way to do it is by sending personalized mail introductions to your contacts. Easy to do, but time-consuming if there’s more than one contact. And if you’re doing your job right, you should have more contacts. With Prowly, it becomes a matter of a click, regardless of the number of contacts and endearing intros you have prepared for them.

Writing a report on mentions in the media? Mediatoolkit replaces hours, if not days of analyzing, with three simple clicks. And even with more data than anyone could manually collect. Take sentiment analysis as an example. It takes two clicks to get all the data that is usually analyzed for hours at a time. Plus, it’s all user experience-oriented, making it possible to get reports whenever you want, before your morning coffee, or after.

Social media sentiment
Just a click is needed for sentiment analysis

There are also tools like Databox that provide a visual dashboard of multiple reports in one place. For example, you can integrate Salesforce, Mediatoolkit, and Google Analytics and see whether your marketing and PR efforts had any real-time impact on your sales.

The boring parts of PR will become automated, as they should. But this is not the core of PR. PR is strategy, creativity, communication, and thinking on your feet.

And if one day robots do replace PR experts, we will probably be living in a world where this will be the least shocking thing to happen.