AI’s comms tech misconceptions

Stop worrying that AI is coming for your job. Start catching up to marketers in adopting it.

It’s not enough to take a crash course in the definitions and applications of AI in communications, but it is important to understand what it cannot do and what it does not do.

Start here: AI is not coming for your job. 

A huge misconception is that artificial intelligence will replace the work of humans. That is emphatically untrue, according to experts. 

“PR and comms professionals should view AI in terms of the pain points that it can help solve,” explains Todd Grossman, CEO of the Americas at Talkwalker. “It allows professionals to focus on jobs that only humans can do. This means converting analysis to actionable insights, with creativity, ingenuity and sensitivity.”

Peter Brand, founder of Insight Media Labs, agrees, noting the benefits of using AI, but adding, “PR needs talented communicators.” 

“By applying AI, an organization will get better at interpreting and applying data to justify budgets, decisions and outcomes,” he says.

Despite the reassurances, some marketing and communications pros are clearly losing sleep over whether AI will take their jobs. A late 2019 CNBC/SurveyMonkey Workplace Happiness poll found that more than one-quarter (27%) of workers are worried that their job could be eliminated in the next five years due to new technology. The most concerned group of respondents were employees in advertising and marketing, 45% of whom think their roles could be on the chopping block due to new tech or AI. 

Those fears are unfounded, say other experts, who predict that AI will amplify the work of human employees, not replace it. 

“Practitioners need to understand that AI doesn’t supplant human effort but rather works as a force multiplier and allows people to do more high-quality work more quickly and at a higher level of precision,” adds Matt Groch, global lead for data analytics and innovation at FleishmanHillard’s True Global Intelligence.

“AI should not be considered a replacement for topics that require deep contextual understanding,” argues Leigh Fatzinger, CEO and founder of Turbine Labs. “It’s naive to think that a machine can do everything that a human can do. AI can inform strategy, but it can’t set strategy.” 

Fatzinger also says that AI doesn’t have the skills to replace humans’ content-creation skills, except in the case of “mundane” topics like earnings releases.

Chris Bingham, chief technology officer of Brandwatch, also stresses the importance of human-developed context. 

“AI doesn’t know your business, or your industry or your people; you do,” he says. “But AI is really good at finding patterns in data. If you recognize the strengths and weaknesses, people and technology can work together in partnership that makes both sides more effective.”

David Benigson, founder and CEO of Signal AI, agrees that AI can elevate work done by humans rather than replace it. 

“Creating the expectation for customers and employees that AI will augment the work experience, rather than replace it, is the best way to prepare others for the future of enterprise AI tools, and the future of work,” he says.

Paul Quigley, cofounder and CEO of NewsWhip, notes that PR is far too reliant on this context and personalization for “general AI” to ever be a real concern.

“It will just start nibbling away at distinct tasks and extending our understanding and capabilities,” he says.

And the biggest and most important thing missing from AI, at least for now? Making judgment calls. 

“AI offers unrivaled data processing and pattern recognition capability, but it does not have the capability to factor in moral, ethical, legal or subjective issues,” says Mark Stouse, chairman and CEO of Proof Analytics. “When we look at most of the important decisions we make every day, it is those human factors that are very often determinant.”

A work in progress

In a nutshell, there’s still a lot AI can’t do, either because of limited technology or limitations to its application. Fatzinger notes that some aspects of AI, such as pattern and image recognition, are well established. However, Brian Buchwald, head of global intelligence at Weber Shandwick argues that AI is “still in its infancy,” adding “it is only as good as the data that is inputted into the model.” 

“AI cannot just ‘solve’ a problem. It needs to be trained on how to come up with a solution,” notes John Gillooly, SVP of data and analytics at Hill+Knowlton Strategies, who cites the oft-used example of an AI tool being given the command to “identify an image of a cat.” The tool can categorize images as “cat” or “not a cat,” but it isn’t able to make further distinctions, such as how to categorize a picture of a tiger.

“There’s a broad misconception that AI is a fully automated solution. While many tech companies are providing access to AI services that can be layered on top of our uses of data, making solutions fit for purpose still requires a considerable amount of effort to train the AI with data in a way that makes it valuable,” adds Chad Latz, chief innovation officer at BCW.

Another aspect of the problem is that the technology doesn’t always keep up with the demands of communications professionals. 

“We believe that most of the methods of measuring the performance of PR and comms efforts have become woefully antiquated,” Fatzinger says. “Paradoxically, most software hasn’t been able to keep up with how quickly humans have evolved in terms of how they consume, share and recall content.” 

That has led Buchwald to think that “we are still very much working out the kinks when it comes to application and it is far more established than people think. To make the models truly useful, the ability of deriving an action plan based on the model output is much needed.”

Slow adoption

Many experts say PR and communications pros have been slow in adoption, putting them at a disadvantage compared to their peers in marketing and advertising. 

“The hard, cold reality is that the PR and social agencies are on the back foot today in their area, and it’s already having profound implications for their businesses,” Stouse says.

Brand adds that “it is early days for AI in the PR and comms space, partly due to the slow adoption of new solutions by the PR industry.”

“Martech and adtech run circles around PR tech,” he says. “PR teams would do well to increase their rate of adoption of new technology, remain relevant and embrace demonstrating ROI. AI is a tool that can help accomplish this.”

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