No Good Deed Dilemma: Will AI Replace Media Relations?

The Dilemma du Jour:

I am the communications director for a multi-national company that produces educational and entertainment products for children. Recently, the marketing department has proposed a campaign of sponsored content, as well as AI-generated stories populating traditional and social media as well as editing Wikipedia pages. As a supporter of a strong, objective media, I am appalled. But the marketing director (my peer) and my CEO see it as a ‘way around’ all those pesky reporters who meddle and ask probing questions about our products. I believe we have been successful in our media relations for many years, building good relationships with a number of reliable media outlets and good journalists. I know many companies are moving away from traditional media relations, but I think that ultimately spells disaster for our reputation as an ethical company.  Is there a way for me to work with our marketing campaign, but maintain my standards with reporters?

Signed, Concerned Communicator

Dear Concerned:

You should be a lot more concerned about a CEO and a marketing director who view reporters as “pesky,” than about an AI-heavy campaign. Assuming your company does not, in fact, have shady things to hide from reporters, it sounds as if you just have some educating to do. While AI tools can enhance marketing campaigns, they can’t entirely replace traditional media relations. As you explain this to the CEO and your marketing colleague, I suggest you rein in your Chicken Little reaction, lest you be painted as simply fearing change. The sky isn’t falling and leveraging AI isn’t likely to “spell disaster for (y)our reputation.” Relying on it as a replacement for standard media relations might impact your bottom line in the wrong direction, though, which is what you should emphasize.

AI offers the potential to better target information to people who want to receive it. Some of the applications are very useful for PR (auto-generated, targeted media lists anyone?). Others can turn people off.  Given your concerns, I’m betting you’ve experienced the Big Brother-esque unease brought on by seeing an ad on one website for the very thing you just searched for on another. This last is an important example for your particular situation, because parents aren’t going to take kindly to having their kids chased around the Internet by your paid content. Journalists will always provide more credible coverage than sponsored stories. AI may be the shiny new marketing plaything, but relying too heavily on it can drive your customers away. You are wise to demand a mix that includes traditional media relations.

If you want your CEO and marketing director to listen to you, keep in mind you all have the same ultimate goal: to support your company’s success. Any leadership team worth its salt will be open to hearing suggestions for enhancing campaign results and minimizing risks. Go frame your argument that way.

~ Karen McCluskey, APR, KM Communications

As a life-long science fiction buff, I relish the day when we can collectively rise up against our automated overseers and take back our destiny as the rightful guardians of the information realm. Alas, this day may never come.

With all the cutbacks in newsrooms, media relations these days is a bit akin to pushing water uphill. It doesn’t help when an increasing number of media outlets today are producing AI-based stories themselves. The New York Times recently reported that roughly a third of the content published by Bloomberg News uses some form of automated technology.

For the situation at hand, there are really two issues that need to be addressed: how to convince the Marketing Director and CEO that traditional media relations has a bona fide role in the marketing mix, as well as maintaining your existing relationships with reporters.

Effective AI-generated content is still in its infancy, so it’s important for you to document and demonstrate the limitations of data-driven content in expanding the company’s profile and enhancing its reputation in the marketplace. Good research comparing the results from AI-generated content versus media relations in capturing share of voice, story placement, tone, ROI and other metrics could open some eyes on the proven benefits of earned media.

Computerized content creators can handle the who, what, when and where of a simple news release, straightforward post or tweet, but they really can’t provide the context necessary to engage an audience creatively, intellectually or emotionally. In an era where it’s easy to tune out bland marketing-speak, you can make a strong case for producing highly-relevant engaging content that results in a prominent media story providing third-party credibility for your company and its products, as well as helps generate leads to fill the sales funnel.

To smooth the ruffled feathers of journalists who may be miffed at the company's robotic response to media relations, I suggest you find opportunities to provide exclusives, if possible, to high-profile reporters who have historically followed your company. Also, work with the marketing department to host topical events for journalists (and other key influencers) to keep them in the loop and perhaps introduce to your CEO or other senior executives.

Pure automated, data-driven PR still has a way to go before it takes hold. Technological innovation has really been an asset to the profession enabling practitioners to make faster, more informed decisions, fine tune messages and provide specific audiences with content they want. In an era of fake news and social media noise, there will always be a demand for innovative, credible communication programs that instill trust in your organization and builds relationships with your stakeholders. And trust simply can’t be automated.

As the digital landscape becomes increasingly complex, we’re sure to see a greater convergence between public relations and other traditionally siloed disciplines. Let’s just all try to get along before the robots finally take over.

~ Martin Livingston, Living Communications Inc.

Editor’s Note:

Public relations in the era of Artificial Intelligence is truly an ethical frontier. In this column, we have only tapped into a couple of the myriad issues that are beginning to confront us as professional communicators handling AI matters.

As a data-driven field, PR is subject to the same challenges as any industry when it comes to the application of AI. So how can we best prepare for working with AI and how can we drive innovation, rather than the reverse? Using AI can cause unexpected biases to appear in databases you use. For example, three years ago scientists at Carnegie Mellon University discovered that women were far less likely than men to be shown Google ads for highly paid jobs. Male users were shown high-paying job ads about 1,800 times, compared to female users who saw those same ads only 300 times.

There are also privacy issues that come up with AI, as well as ensuring the values of our employer (or clients) are reflected when using technology. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – is the intersection of AI and our profession in how we provide good ethical counsel. Our clients and employers count on us to help them make good ethical decisions and AI is just one more layer in already complex decision-making. This new layer can lead us to questions such as “What data analytics do we use? How invasive are those analytics and those information collection techniques? Should we purchase that type of information? If so, was it obtained ethically?” Think about Cambridge Analytica and Facebook’s recent problems and the applications and implications crystalize a bit more.

If you have any ethical challenges involving AI, we’d love to hear from you! We are all learning together.

~ Deborah Folka, APR, LM, FCPRS, DLF Communications Ltd.

About the Author

Deborah Folka, APR, FCPRS, LM, is the editor of the ethics column, No Good Deed. She is also a senior accredited public relations professional with over 25 years of experience in strategic communications planning, issues management and crisis communications planning, prevention and management. In addition to working in-house for a variety of public, private and not-for-profit organizations, she has run one of the most successful independent pr consultancies in Western Canada for over 20 years.