A PR exec sees an essential difference that will keep humans in the game.
Digital marketing and ad platforms are already adding artificial intelligence at a furious pace, providing insights and campaign management once goals are set.
If this trajectory keeps up, it’s possible that these campaigns will become the equivalent of the self-driving car: Tell it where you want to go, and then sit back and attend to other business.
But public relations — the “free media” part of marketing — has a fundamental difference, according to Karla Jo Helms, founder and CEO of the Tampa, Florida-based JoTo PR agency.
Her firm is already employing a variety of tools that utilize AI and machine learning, she told me, to track audience sentiment on social media, develop media lists, scout appropriate influencers, interpret analytics and so on. And AI-powered PR tools are emerging for such tasks as researching and making predictions about trends or helping to run PR campaigns.
When this story is revisited ten years from now, Helms said, she expects that perhaps half of the work currently done by her human staff will be handled in some way via intelligent tools. AI, for instance, is already powering tools like Persado to write its own marketing text copy, and she pointed to bots at AP and others that regularly generate short financial, technical and other stories from press releases and other sources.
But ultimately, Helms said, the fundamental difference between marketing/ads on the one hand, and PR on the other, will allow humans engaged in PR to retain an inviolate core of responsibility.
Marketing and advertising are about getting the brand’s message out there. Consumers know that it’s selling, and they warily respond to the product’s declared advantages.
But PR, Helms said, “is about establishing trust.”
An ad for a new SUV might show the vehicle’s beautiful design, its handling on a road’s curves and its sunroof. Consumers don’t expect the ad to talk about its downsides, such as its relatively low miles-per-gallon.
But when a series of accidents causes the car company to issue a steering wheel recall, Helms said, the best PR strategy for such crisis management is to maintain credibility. The PR might well be angled toward the brand’s point-of-view, but it loses value if it is seen as just another kind of ad.
Like news, PR makes an argument based on facts. But news isn’t supposed to care about which side wins the argument presented, as long as the argument is accurate. PR wants the brand’s argument to win, and, to do that, consumers “want to know [the PR has] been vetted,” she said.
AI can’t fully vet things, because it can’t validate the brand’s argument from the point of view of a human observer. Without that validation, PR at its most essential — such as in a crisis — cannot separate itself from advertising.
So, either AI has to target an ambitious set of new goals, or PR professionals have an island of responsibility that they can’t be kicked off.