Increasingly tech-driven PR still needs a human touch

Despite many advances in public relations technology in recent years, the use of technology in PR is nothing new.

Despite many advances in public relations technology in recent years, the use of technology in PR is nothing new. In its infancy, the first public relations practitioners employed typewriters and telephones. Later, we evolved to word processing and faxing. 

But now, it seems that PR technology is accelerating at an extraordinary pace with weekly announcements of real-time platforms, digital content-creation portals, and instantaneous broadcasting tools all driven by the accelerating power and influence of social media. Despite – or perhaps because of -- these technological advances, I would suggest that the human element in public relations is more valuable than ever. 

As the CEO of a public relations research firm, I spend a lot of time with the PR community discussing social media listening, analytics, and engagement. And despite hundreds of real-time tool options, practitioners are more stressed than ever as they struggle to harmonize the speed and consistency of technology with the need for accuracy, insight, and guidance. The fact is that real-time media monitoring software and the algorithms by which they sift content for relevancy, sentiment, and meaning are fast, constant, and literal. But the result is that context, intention, and ambiguity and the mystery of human logic escape them. As such, practitioners find it difficult to trust the tool after experiencing irrelevant content, incorrect sentiment, and erroneous tagging.

If all we needed was a tool, everyone who types would be Tolstoy.

This is not to suggest that all social tools are worthless, even if some are free. The proper balance between humans and technology shifts from situation to situation: low-impact applications -- “please send me the meatloaf recipe” -- may be totally automated and still deliver the desired outcome. But the serious decision-making required in many cases requires human expertise, insight, and understanding. Under conditions involve reputation challenges, legal action, regulatory reform, and similar circumstances, high-stakes demand accuracy, understanding, and insight. Algorithms alone aren't reliable for serious business decision-making. The best approach for business balances the strengths of each. Social media listening and analytics, for example, should be approached from the beginning for the perspective of a flexible hybrid solution: automation where automation works best and human-validated and coded data and analysis when the stakes are high. If all we needed was a tool, everyone who types would be Tolstoy.

Although computers, software, and algorithms are improving, they cannot go it alone. As such, the public relations profession requires uniquely human assets to support the organizations for which we serve. Distinctively, public relations professionals foster dialogue, we decode marketplace direction, and we deliver insight for mutual benefit. As we have evolved from telex to email to Twitter, we humans are not yet obsolete. This is no more apparent than in the distinctively interpersonal profession of public relations.

The convergence of social media, new technology, and the speed of business has changed what public relations professionals do but not who we are

Mark Weiner is CEO of Prime Research Americas. He can be reached at weiner@prime-research.com.

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