Does artificial intelligence have a place in PR? (Column)

As the media landscape continues to collapse, will AI be its saviour?

Don’t get me wrong, I’m practically optimistic about artificial intelligence (AI). This past summer, I subscribed to TechCrunch’s bot on Facebook Messenger. And while I wouldn’t call my interactions a relationship, they’re getting closer to serving me the stories I want. Or maybe they’re a lot smarter than I think: the last note I received featured two posts on AI.

I recently upgraded to iOS 10 and doesn’t it seem like Siri’s improved? She/it now gets the gist of my sundry requests even when I fail to enunciate like Rex Harrison. I also enjoyed the movie Her and I’m intrigued by the concept of self-driving cars.

Of course, part of me is frightened by the singularity — that moment when my computer will consciously admit to knowing more than me (right now it’s more of an unconscious hunch on my part). Even tech luminaries like Bill Gates and Elon Musk share my apprehension. Though Musk now believes somehow making the computer interface part of our physiology will take away the danger. I’m not sure which outcome is worse.

All of that got me thinking about PR, which has been adrift ever since the media landscape started to collapse several years back. And I wondered if there might be a possible AI future for PR.

Machine intelligence and communication do not have a stellar history

Of course before we gaze forward, let’s examine the past. And we need look no further than the ’90s for PR’s first close encounter of the AI kind.

In those days, I was an entertainment publicist working on a state-of-the-art-high-speed 486 PC. I quickly discovered the nifty trick of being able to print to fax. That meant as long as I had a fax number set up in my database – er, list – I could distribute my release with a single command.

Of course, my computer didn’t have the intelligence to tell me how many of those same releases were going straight into the proverbial circular file.

In the early 2000s, the industry took that tactic a step further when it discovered the power of BCC emails that could be blasted out to media of all stripes whether or not said journalist was remotely interested in what we had to peddle. That was not an intelligent move, artificial or otherwise.

Of course, not all our machine learning missteps were with email and fax. Some happened with a hasty cut and paste, others with a religious reliance on spellcheck.

Once again, artificial intelligence let us down. Or maybe we just weren’t ready.

Taking lessons from AI

Then it dawned on me that perhaps we should consider an alternate perspective. Rather than relying on machines to be learning from us, we should figure out what PR strategies we can learn from machines.

Here are three:

Know what the user wants. AI starts by listening to requests, collecting data and then offering users the types of content or answers they’re more likely to want and need. As opposed to sending an inelegant jargon-filled pitch plus a photo of a giant cheque.

Understand what the user does. Machines observe users’ actions, what they do, how they behave and try to build their offerings around that – versus trying to reach people on your terms, not theirs.

Improve the user experience. A better UX means acting on items one and two and making every encounter seamless so users are more likely to come back and interact again. This is probably the most important change for PR because it demands a seismic communications shift from broadcaster to receiver.

These days PR people know better than to be spammers. And the good ones understand true relationships should never be based on automation, which is fast, but rather on trust, which takes time. It will take more than a bot to help us master that.

What’s been your experience with AI? Does it have a place in PR?

Martin Waxman is president of Martin Waxman Communications, is a author and teaches digital strategy at University of Toronto School of Continuing Studies and Seneca College. You can find him on Twitter @martinwaxman.

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