I was recently in Hawaii, where - as I think must be required of everyone who's on or near a beach - I read the latest Dan Brown book. It's a page-turner called Origin, full of exciting, pulpy ideas about art, history and science - and one character, named Winston, who has stuck in my head and refused to leave.
Winston is a computerised personal assistant, an AI whose intelligence seems uncannily real. His skills are human – he speaks, he answers questions, he even tells jokes – but his motives aren’t. He knows what he’s supposed to be doing, and he knows how to do it, but he doesn’t know why. He simply does as he’s been told.
At Cannes this year, I’ve been thinking a lot about Winston and especially about the tension between the promise of purpose and the possibility of AI.
As always, Cannes is a crystal ball: It gives us a glimpse into the future of PR. This year, that future looks like paradigm-shifting automation. (Think Publicis Groupe’s Marcel but on an exponentially larger scale). So I wonder: what will agency work look like after AI and automation have remade it? And how can we keep on leading with real, human purpose in a future almost completely mediated by algorithms?
The future is automated
According to a 2017 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, by 2030, automation could replace as many as 73 million jobs in the US. Some positions are more vulnerable than others: for instance, machines already perform tasks like entry-level accounting, human-resources management, data mining and even stock trading, and the Wall Street Journal recently speculated that AI will soon transform fields from construction to customer service.
By contrast, the communications industry seems relatively stable. Robots probably won’t replace marketing and PR managers any time soon, and automated tools that can do a competent job of writing or collaborating with an editor are a long way off. It’s likely that automation will help communications departments the same way it has marketing departments – by reducing or eliminating repetitive tasks and augmenting strategic thinking and human insight.
Fundamentally, as Ivan Ristic, co-founder of Diffusion, wrote in PRWeek not long ago:
"PR requires creativity, the type of thinking that machines, not yet at least, are capable of superseding – such as ensuring tone of voice or messaging of written communications or executing a creative stunt…
Media relations, as well as influencer relations, requires creativity. People need to like you. It’s much easier, and feasible, for a human to employ the creativity and emotional intelligence required to build lasting relationships with press than a chatbot.
A bot can’t lay claim to emotional intelligence, a cornerstone of all PR work. Teams employing AI handling external communication would be wise to have plans to manage reputation should anything automated go awry. Humans build trust with humans–not bots.
But even if automation won’t have an immediate impact on creative, content and media-relations work, agencies will still need to adapt. For example, tech departments may grow as AI supervisors become more crucial to a company’s success: AIs need to be "trained" to understand data and use insights to complete tasks, and agencies will need to either outsource that work or build that functionality into their teams.
What can all this teach us about the challenges facing future PR leaders in an increasingly automated world?
1. Algorithms can’t tell us "why"
Dan Brown’s Winston does what he does because his programmer told him to. Similarly, real-life algorithms and AIs aren’t so big on motivation. They can tell us the how, and they can help us build the what, but they have a harder time with the why.
And why, of course, is the heart and soul of PR. You can’t succeed unless you understand why people do what they do; even more important, you can’t lead unless you understand what your company stands for. Only humans can decide what’s truly meaningful. Only humans can fully grasp, and act on, our purpose – whatever that may be. These things are what matter most and these things are entirely up to us.
2. Storytelling will continue to be a human endeavor
The ultimate purpose of communications is to use stories to move people to action. Practically speaking, that means human storytellers are safe for now: at this point, algorithms simply can’t identify the best hook for a story or understand which content is most interesting or emotionally resonant. Coaching AIs to do creative work has provided extremely mixed results and interpreting language is one of the hardest cognitive tasks humans perform.
Even if AI were to become much more naturalistic in its creative output, it simply wouldn’t make sense to give the task of storytelling to machines. The human brain is hardwired for stories; in fact, you might say that storytelling is the most essentially human activity there is.
So, here’s my advice to leaders: hold on tight to your best storytellers. They are literally irreplaceable.
3. AIs aren’t coming for your job anytime soon.
Although some companies are experimenting with automating management tasks, true leadership requires intuition. From knowing when to encourage and when to take a harder stance with underperforming employees to making decisions that will affect the quality of life of your entire staff in difficult-to-quantify ways, humans simply have the upper hand.
"AIs can’t make judgment calls and tackle decisions that can affect thousands of human lives," wrote Henri Steenkamp, CFO of Saratoga Investment Group, in an essay in Entrepreneur called "3 Reasons Why Automation Won’t Replace the CFO." "Not every problem can be broken down into quantifiable factors," he continued. "Even today’s high-tech world has a need for intuition and human-based decision-making."
In sum: the level of automation we take for granted today was unimaginable even 15 years ago, and I’m sure we’ll be surprised in many ways as tech continues marching forward. We don’t know what’s coming, but we do know this: it’s people – clear-eyed and leading with purpose – who get other people to adopt new ideas and innovations. That’s the work we do and that’s the work that inspires real, lasting and positive change