Listen very carefully: the robots are coming

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Pixabay (Creative Commons)
Pixabay (Creative Commons)

Could “listening” become the most valuable skill set in a PR professionals’ toolkit in an evolving world of artificial intelligence (AI) asks guest author Shelley Sullivan. This article is based on a CIPR Professional PR Diploma submission.

Shelley Sullivan

The story so far

The robot revolution is rapidly gaining pace and as with other professions, it has sparked debate around what this means for the future of Public Relations (PR). The way we work is evolving and with it comes fear of the unknown. Take a look online and you will find one of the most hotly debated issues centres on whether this technological revolution will ultimately lead to job losses and an end to PR practice as we know it.

It is difficult to predict the future so our focus should be on what we know now rather than what we do not. This will allow us to understand how we are best placed to embrace the changes that lie ahead. Yes – AI is changing, and will undoubtedly continue to change, the way we practice our profession.  The question is: how do we adapt to ensure we can work in unison alongside it and become even more effective and productive in our jobs?

The Future of Employment1 study by Oxford University Academics claimed in 2013 there was an 18% chance the role of PR specialists would become automated and ranked it 201st in a list of the 702 jobs most at risk. While AI raises the prospect of significant productivity gains, it also brings with it the risk of increased unemployment according to a report by Parliament’s Artificial Intelligence Committee2.

The term ‘technological employment’ is not a new one, it was popularised by John Maynard Keyesback in 1930 and the issue of technological displacement of labour can be traced back as far as the early 1800s in the context of the industrial revolution4. Despite this more than 75% of 16 to 64 year olds5 are still in work in the UK today. Focusing on the PR profession alone reveals, in this new world of technology, the sector as a whole is in fact growing not declining. This year’s CIPR State of the Profession report6 shows the number of PR practitioners has increased 22% over the last four years. The report by Parliament’s Artificial Intelligence Committee2 is clear that while we should expect further significant disruption to the labour market as a result of AI, forecasts of job losses, job enhancements and job opportunities are purely speculative at this stage.  What is needed now is further analysis and assessment on the evolution of AI on the job market.

Looking to the future of PR

Earlier this year the CIPR published its AI in PR panel paper7 with the aim of sparking discussion around the subject. The paper used a simplified version of the GBOK framework, describing more than 50 capabilities in PR, to visually represent the skills AI is most likely to replace. Tools were benchmarked against the framework and this showed 12% of a PR practitioner’s 52 total skills could be complemented or replaced by AI right now. It went on to suggest this could increase to 38% within five years. However, it also suggested that fundamental human traits such as empathy, trust, humour and relationship building could not be automated. AI only follows mathematical models of thought and, as of yet, does not have emotional intelligence.

And therein lies the gift for us PR professionals. Our focus now needs to be on becoming better at the things machines cannot do, at what we as humans are uniquely good at. One thing we excel at, and which machines cannot replicate, is actually listening to and understanding what people are saying and then using this information to connect with audiences to tell emotion-driven stories. What we can do, that AI currently cannot, is communicate with an audience and resonate with them based on our understanding of that audience and their needs and our emotional ability to read them. In short, it’s about listening and understanding so we can tell our stories better.

Listening to understand

Digital media has already revolutionalised the way we practice our profession, putting pay to the one way communications model used in PR for so long. The model of companies sending a message to publics via print media cannot remain effective when so many publics now have a voice. We now live in a world where there are millions of citizen journalists with over three million blogs posted on the internet each day8. As a result communications has had to become more two way and interactive. This was outlined in 2009 by Gruing who said if social media was to be used to its full potential it would “make public relations more global, strategic, two-way and interactive, symmetrical and dialogical, and socially responsible”9.

Listening is a fundamental part of two way communications. According to Li and Bernoff10 developing a social media mindset involves developing empathy for people, being a good listener, being patient, being opportunistic, being flexible and being collaborative. The importance of listening was again reiterated by Ralph Tench and Angeles Moreno11 who claimed listening was the most important knowledge area for senior managers, including those in crisis, internal communications or social media.

Focusing on social media alone, it’s so easy for a seemingly good natured message to be misinterpreted. Take for example Campbell Soup who had to apologise for a tweet from its SpaghettiO’s brand to commemorate the 72nd anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack12. An image showed a smiling mascot holding an American flag. The tweet asked followers to “To take a moment to remember #PearlHarbour with us” but many criticised the tone of the smiley mascot when 2,400 Americans were killed in the attack. AI cannot predict how our audience will feel about something that is communicated or how they will react but humans often can because of the intelligence and experience we have gained. Humans are so individually complex that a machine cannot possibly predict our reaction.

How AI supports us to listen

That said, it is unrealistic to think that we PR professionals have time to read every single tweet about our brand. Listening effectively can feel like an impossible task when more data has been created in the last two years than in history of human race13 and when there are so many people expressing a view on that information. That is where AI comes into its own. One thing a computer can do well that we cannot is to sift through huge, and often overwhelming amounts of data, to analyse the factors that will most consistently lead to successful PR campaigns and provide fresh insights. It can do this in a fraction of the time that it would take us humans to do so.

AI in social media is already becoming an established area which can improve how we reach people with our messaging14. It can take out the guesswork and our absolute reliance on gut instinct helping to more accurately inform:

  • The best time to start a campaign
  • The most compelling subject lines to use
  • Which social channels will be most effective
  • Which influencers, bloggers, and journalists to approach
  • What facts will be most effective

As a tool, it can also help to predict a reputational crisis14. This is critical in a world where an online crisis now spreads faster than any virus and, where more often than not, we are left dealing with a crisis long after it has already been blown out of proportion. AI is not restrained by our human limitations. A machine can analyse hundreds of different factors, including some from social listening, to predict what brand threats are on the horizon. In fact, monitoring programs already exist to track chatter, alert brands about negative mentions and identify patterns we PR professionals can use to build better engagement strategies.

This then gives us time to create an effective plan of action to deal with any potential negative situations. An example of this is the hashtag analytics company Keyhole who currently use Google’s machine learning framework, TensorFlow, to predict social media crises for its clients15. According to Saif Ajani, CEO of Keyhole, the company plugs its data sets into the AI cloud to get predictions which are 80% – 90% accurate. This means within just three days, Keyhole is able to predict how a crisis might unfold over the next 30 days. Karna is another tool that uses big data to provide accurate sentiment analysis reports by breaking down language and measuring the engagement metrics of each interaction16.

The role of humans in listening

However whilst it is a useful tool and an example of how new technology can make a real difference to our roles in terms of productivity and efficiency, we cannot rely on AI entirely when it comes to listening. There will inevitably be interesting conversations out there that are not as popular, do not get as much attention and cannot be identified by an algorithm but are interesting or critical to organisational reputation.

In addition, interpreting and understanding the data identified by algorithms and the story it reveals is still very much a skill that requires emotional intelligence which is currently only something a human can do. While AI might be able to identify a potential PR crisis, it cannot make the emotional connections or build the kind of person to person relationships required to fully head off that same crisis. This is because computers lack the empathy, spontaneity and creativity that we as humans do so well. This is not expected to change any time soon, according to estimates from Forrester, it will take 100 years or so for mankind to arrive at the possibility of “Pure AI”17 – where machines can think and function the way humans do.

The role for both AI and humans in listening is touched upon by the CIPR’s AI in PR panel’s discussion paper7. It states listening and monitoring is already one of the 27% of skill sets benefitting from technology or AI to assist with decision making or deep analysis. It says in five years, there may be more assistance from AI tools which will contribute more directly to the application of skills in this category but on balance the panel still sees human intervention being dominant with AI playing a minor role. It goes on to say given the relatively low uptake in the sub set of these 27% of skills they see “AI tools supporting but not overtaking humans”. AI cannot converse in the same way as humans and therefore important nuances associated with listening, emotion, feeling and response would be lost. Jim Macnamara’s study into two way communication, engagement and dialogue18 calls for the inclusion of both technological and human resources. Listening he says is about recognition, acknowledgement, attention, interpreting, understanding, consideration and responding with intelligence as the output.

While algorithms can be used to sift through the vast amounts of data, emotional intelligence, a trait currently only expressed by humans, is critical to understand what is being said, what is meant and how to respond. Despite this, it would appear that listening is one of the areas most neglected in PR and is seen as a nice to have rather than critical. In the CIPR’s state of the profession report 201619 – listening doesn’t specifically feature in the list of activities carried out by PR professionals. It is therefore crucial that we build the listening part of our roles so it becomes an integral part of what we do if we are to work in unison with AI in the longer term. Listening may well be the future of PR and is likely to play an important role in safeguarding the human element of our profession in the future.

Safeguarding our roles for the future

To stay relevant in our profession we need to focus on skills and capabilities AI cannot currently replicate. While it is true AI can improve PR practice, there are still many instances where the human touch is vastly superior. We need to see AI as a member of the team that we are coaching rather than something that could make our role obsolete. AI cannot compete with us PR professionals when it comes to skills that require emotional intelligence like creativity, empathy, critical thinking, artistic expression, listening or leadership capabilities. These skills could become the most prized and highly valued over all other skills in the future, becoming differentiators as AI takes over other tasks. Listening is just one example of where we can start applying these skills in tandem with AI and it is a great place for us to start to build a strong relationship with AI. Perhaps somewhere in the future, we will develop an AI that can relate to humans emotionally, but until then, as PR professionals we need to highly value skills such as listening which will always require emotional intelligence.  


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