THURSDAY 15 FEB 2024 10:03 AM


Michal Kranz takes a look at the PR industry's burgeoning relationship with AI technology.

During a year in which AI innovators have delivered breakthrough after breakthrough, discussions about AI’s impact across nearly every industry have been impossible to avoid. In the public relations space, it’s almost the only thing anyone talks about, and not without reason — AI has the potential to truly revolutionise not just how PR professionals produce communications materials, but also how agencies at large organize themselves and interface with consumers.

But although AI has been causing a stir within the communication space all year as PR professionals have embraced it to optimise certain workflows, research has shown that the sector still has a long way to go. According to experts, not only are PR professionals still underutilising AI tools, but agencies themselves have failed to adequately incorporate them into their management standards. Now, as the PR space looks ahead to 2024, an array of opportunities lies on the horizon for communications professionals to apply a host of solutions in functions that go far beyond mere content generation, namely in strategic planning, crisis communications and reputation management.

Yet at the same time, as AI continues to become more ubiquitous in the industry, professionals in the space at all levels will need to train themselves and their organisations to circumvent the potential pitfalls AI applications will surely present in order to not only use this technology as ethnically as possible, but also to protect their brands’ ability to connect with the public at large.

A September study by Salesforce illuminated this dichotomy: while AI has been adopted rapidly across the globe, there is a significant portion of the population who have yet to engage with the technology. This gap in adoption could be attributed to a lack of understanding, as 70% of non-users would be more inclined to use generative AI if they knew more about it. Moreover, 64% would use it more if it was deemed safer and 45% would do so if it was more intuitively integrated into their existing technology suite.

With regard to the PR space specifically, recent research by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) revealed that 40% of PR work now involves AI assistance, with ChatGPT taking center stage in the content creation realm — despite the industry as a whole being slow to incorporate AI into their work lives.

For Andrew Bruce Smith, co-founder of Escherman and chair of the CIPR AI in PR Panel, the way AI tools like ChatGPT are currently being used in PR is still just scratching the surface. "It could potentially be used for an infinite variety of possible use cases,” Smith says. “I think people are using it in a relatively unsophisticated way.”

According to the CIPR study, social media management, data analytics and media monitoring rounded out the list of PR tasks in which AI is playing a significant role. But according to Smith, AI's potential in PR could extend to research, campaign planning, stakeholder engagement and beyond.

"When people start to understand the applications of AI technology and begin to apply it to other areas of communications work, that's really where we're going to see some quite interesting findings"

Smith recommends that to maximise efficiency and to most effectively augment their workflows, PR professionals should invest in Google Bard, Perplexity AI and Claude AI, in addition to ChatGPT, albeit the premium version. According to PR Lab, AI tools like these will play a significant role in PR work related to reputation control, media monitoring and predictive analytics.

Yet Patrik Schober, managing partner at PRAM Consulting and author of The Art of Leadership Through Public Relations, argued that for AI to truly revolutionize PR, a cultural shift is needed within the industry. "I don’t think AI is the problem, the problem is the mindset of the PR industry,” Schober says. “The managers should be more open to what the new generation is using for the job being done.”

Schober stresses the importance of adopting the Consultancy Management Standard (CMS) developed by ICCO, which advocates for the use of apps embedded with AI to manage agencies and campaigns effectively. For him, only through systemic improvements can the power of AI truly be unleashed for PR agencies.

However, the march towards fully leveraging AI in PR is not without its ethical and practical challenges. Voice cloning technology rolled out by Eleven Labs, Resemble AI and beyond has already created headaches for brand managers looking to retain control of their messaging, a concern echoed by 63.9% of respondents in a Prowly survey this month who cited audio and video manipulation and the spread of fake news as their top anxiety regarding AI. "The ability for quite frankly anyone who wants to do it to appropriate, copy, and create misinformation [and] disinformation is pretty scary," Smith says.

On the other side of the coin, communications and PR agencies will also have to take steps to keep up their end of the bargain — just as they will struggle to keep a handle on AI-driven misinformation relevant to the brands they represent, they too will have to make an effort to retain the trust of consumers. 37.8% of respondents in the Prowly survey expressed AI-related cybersecurity and privacy concerns, while 26.4% feared a lack of transparency in AI usage.

As AI becomes more autonomous, the onus will in many instances fall on PR professionals to maintain transparency about the AI's decision-making processes, especially when handling user data and brand messaging. More fundamentally however, entrusting AI to play a greater role in brand communications brings with it its own set of considerations.

"However, AI is not a solution for all...the risk for brands using AI is the over-reliance on technology, which could result in narratives and campaigns which are emotionally flat" 

One of the primary challenges in teaching AI to make decisions about brand messaging lies in the subtleties that define a brand’s voice. Each brand is made up of a complex set of nuances, woven from its values, tone, and the narratives it seeks to share with the consumer ecosystem. To entrust an AI with the brand’s voice is to teach it not just about the brand’s products or services, but to imbue it with the brand’s ethos and the emotional connections it aims to forge with its audience.

AI can be very efficient in assisting with message creation that resonates with the target audience and is less prone to the kind of repetition that might lead to audience fatigue,” Jakub Hrabovský, managing partner at Ewing and PROI Partner, says. However, AI is not a solution for all... the risk for brands using AI is the over-reliance on technology, which could result narratives and campaigns which are emotionally flat.” 

The adage ‘garbage in, garbage out’ holds painfully true here — any inherent biases or gaps in the data used to train the AI can lead to decisions that are misaligned with the brand’s identity or, worse, offensive and damaging. More and more businesses are already developing in-house AI systems that are being trained on their brand, making reliable AI-driven brand communication easier and more insulated from such risks. Nevertheless, all this means that PR professionals must remain perpetually agile, adapting to new capabilities, and anticipating how these might be harnessed for, or against, a brand's messaging efforts.

Although the PR industry has largely dragging its feet in AI adoption, in 2024 and beyond, AI is sure to play a decisive role in transforming the space not only by driving efficiency at multiple levels, but also by making it easier for teams to reach their target audiences externally and internally.

For brands and the PR agencies that help them grow, the challenges AI presents are significant, but if addressed head-on, the potential payoff could be monumental for all sides of the marketplace — but only if the sector as a whole takes it upon itself to step up to the plate and implement these technologies in ways that truly maximise their transformative potential.