Tuesday, June 26, 2018

#AIinPR - A response to Jean Valin's paper


This is a paper responding to “Humans still needed An analysis of skills and tools in public relations”  by Jean Valin APR, FCPRS, FCIPR (Hon).

In an exercise like this, there are three big problems.

We look forward to an extension of what we know. Can we think more laterally and thus not be caught out by developments?

Did we really automate printing envelope labels to affix to envelopes and stuff press release and add a stamp before posting or do we simply send an email?. PR jobs have already been automated but who envisaged such an evolution as dramatic as email 25 years ago?

We have difficulty transferring technologies to PR practice. There are great technologies we know about but can’t imagine in a PR work environment. OR we can image it in a PR environment but not our environment - at least not until we retire.

Let's take empathy as an example. We imagine it is a human trait that will not be usefully deployed in PR in the recognisable future. But now we discover research saying “... expect the technologies that surround us to become emotion-aware in the next five years.

That is not to invalided Jaen Valin’s work. It is a great foundation for focusing and evaluating the impact of the big changes that are obvious today. It makes us think more carefully about how to manage a massive transition coming our way.

How big might this transition be?

  • Consider one of the major elements of PR: communication. Imaging that revolutions such as painting, writing, printing, radio and television, the web and social media were but a prelude to telepathy?  
  • A key area of PR is the development of trust  and ethical debate in an era when technologies like blockchain automated many trust based activities and (existing) AI system can listen to a boardroom conversation and take all the evidence and arguments into account and challenge the reasoning of humans (and even make ethical judgements).

In this review of the #AIinPR context, I have challenged some assumptions we have examined so far and proposed a way in which the PR sector can put its practitioners in the forefront of relationship development.

Humans still needed

The question we keep asking if humans will still be needed at some point in the future. Of course, this is the wrong question.

From a macro perspective, countries with advanced PR industries have stagnant or declining populations and where there is huge, life-threatening, population growth (Africa, India, China etc.) the sector is comparatively immature. From a technology perspective, research, development and deployment is often small sector specific and takes a long time to transfer from one sector to another. It needs both creative minds to link development from one sector to another and it requires intelligence to adapt such transfers for PR specific applications.

Finally, there is the problem of adoption. PR people are very conservative. Will they use such capabilities? How many practitioners have built a bot? An AI Bot.

Meantime,the PR industry has some big jobs to do. The social, economic and cultural issues of our time need attention. This management of cultures is a PR issue which has to call on PR capabilities such as communication, politics and organisation strategy development. If  the ‘connected ape’ has mobile data traffic that will increase sevenfold between 2016 and 2021 how do we cope with the consequences? Such capabilities need the help of AI and other technologies but are much more important.

Yes, humans are still needed and mostly in identification and application of capabilities to give more time to the big issues as well as applying technical developments to support clients’ efforts in creating environments to succeed in a technically advancing society in a time of almost unsustainable global population growth.

Questions to consider.

Now, let’s return to “Humans still needed: An analysis of skills and tools in public relations”.

Sentence by sentence it is possible to apply the three tests:

  1. Is this a linear approach?
  2. Is this response limited by technofear/lack of knowledge
  3. Is this too far in the future to be relevant to my kind of practice

Perhaps then we will look for a different response.

We need brave people to ask these question:

  1. “Can this emerging technology be adopted for PR applications?”
  2. “Can this emerging technology be adapted for PR applications?
  3. “How far along the hype cycle is this technology?
  4. “How can this technology be introduced to acceptable, ethical and common PR practice?
  5. What is the narrow and wider threat of this technology?

The reason such questions are so important is that the serried ranks of technology development are already upon us. They will either make PR irrelevant or will offer a competitive advantage to competing interests. In some cases the career threat is in third party use of technology.

As an aside, one can consider threats that come out of apparently nowhere: The very idea that a foreign agent can tweak a technology (Facebook?) and thereby subvert democracy is, for a corporate affairs or political PR practitioner, a challenge to their livelihood (what happened to ‘smoke-filled rooms’, coffee mornings, Corbyn music festivals/rallies and political receptions?).  In the Public Relations practice of the political agent she is held responsible if laws are broken in pursuit of the campaign – libel and copyright infringement on and off-line being amongst the most likely. If other people take part in doing something, they may also end up with a share of responsibility – but the primary responsibility always rests with the agent and cannot be avoided. A Kremlin gang using Facebook can easily deny a practitioner her career.

Examining #AIinPR  from the Global Alliance Global Body of Knowledge perspective

#AIinPR examines AI from quite a narrow perspective as we shall see as the following descriptors are matched to emerging technologies:
  1. Simplification – technology that simplifies a public relations process, or provides a tactical service
  2. Listening and monitoring – media and social media listening and monitoring tools
  3. Automation – automation of tactical tasks
  4. AI for structured data – machine intelligence applied to structured data
  5. AI for unstructured data – machine intelligence applied to unstructured data
I have followed the report as in considering the three categories.

  1. Skills with zero tech or AI
  2. Skills or portions thereof that may have a minor contribution from tech or AI tools
  3. Skills where tech or AI is already more prevalent

I looked at the paragraph:
“Skills with zero tech Of the 52 skills in the GBOK, 17, or 32% of our lists, were deemed to currently have zero tech support. Given the high human aspects associated with judgement, interpretation and experience, we don’t see the ‘zero list’ changing much in future. Fundamental human traits such as empathy, trust, humour and relationship building can’t be automated – at least not yet. Skills such as: flexibility with constant changes, mentoring, familiarity with theories and its application, strategic thinking and ethical considerations are unlikely to be overtaken by AI. There might be tools that inform our decisions now and, in the future, but predominantly, these will remain the domain of humans.”

One by one, and with few exceptions, we find extant technologies that are potential tools for PR even in areas where activities with apparently zero touch are concerned.

I examine them here:


Professor Chris Reed at the centre for augmented technology at the University of Dundee commented on a  debate where IBM used artificial intelligence capable of persuasive argument. As applied for human debate this capability might be applied in boardroom decisions were there lots of conflicting points of view and the AI system could listen to the conversation and take all the evidence and arguments into account and challenge the reasoning of humans, suggested Reed. There is also an application where this capability can increase the level of evidence-based decision making. Reported in the Guardian, Reed suggested that the same system could be used in counter-terrorism identifying if a particular person represents a threat.


RAGE AI has developed artificial intelligence technology that scans mountains of structured or unstructured documents. The engine sorts through the data it ingests and provides analysis or interpretation of any patterns it discovers. “RAGE works in both assisted and unassisted mode—assisted by human experts or on its own.

“The use of machine learning to power business decisions and product recommendations is becoming widespread. We experience it when we buy on Amazon, watch TV on Netflix, hail an Uber or tag friends on Facebook. There are more creative experiments out there like The Next Rembrandt app, “machine music composition” and “TV show script generation” that use machine learning to create new art (with mixed results).”


Experience is now synthesized.  Spotify can use experience to provide answers that its users need (the right music). Experience information is used to provide sales displays and Facebook uses huge consumer experience to match advertising collateral to marketing segments.

The idea to fully replace a designer with an algorithm sounds futuristic, but the whole point is wrong. Product designers help to translate a raw product idea into a well-thought-out user interface, with solid interaction principles and a sound information architecture and visual style, while helping a company to achieve its business goals and strengthen its brand.


MIT suggests that empathy and much more to be available to the practitioner: “Nonetheless, the field is progressing so fast that I expect the technologies that surround us to become emotion-aware in the next five years. They will read and respond to human cognitive and emotional states, just the way humans do. Emotion AI will be ingrained in the technologies we use every day, running in the background, making our tech interactions more personalized, relevant, authentic, and interactive. It’s hard to remember now what it was like before we had touch interfaces and speech recognition. Eventually, we’ll feel the same way about our emotion-aware devices”, says Rana el Kaliouby at MIT.

Trust is already being affected by technology. Of course, we now know there are open technologies that can be trusted it has been the subject for discussion among business consultants for some time. Deloitte say “Beyond creating efficiencies by removing the legal and financial intermediary in a contractual agreement, blockchain is assuming the role of trusted gatekeeper and purveyor of transparency. In the emerging “trust economy” in which a company’s assets or an individual’s online identity and reputation are becoming both increasingly valuable and vulnerable, this latest use case may be blockchain’s most potentially valuable to date”.

Blockchain is a technology that is now part of the PR trust development equation http://bit.ly/2JyHVbQ.

It is being considered in a number of quarters including as a policing technology to ensure trust in brands.  


“...computers and robots are already pioneering their own comedic stylings, as an accidental byproduct of learning the fundamentals of humour in humans. Computational humour may primarily be an effort on the part of the artificial intelligence community, but it also stands to enrich the comedy world with an unusual outsider perspective.

Relationship building

Hitachi is building relationships to help in customer community building:

Finding customers who generate new value is an important factor in increasing revenue at companies. In the case of outcall sales in particular, how sales representatives acquire new prospective customers has a direct bearing on their performance. Unfortunately, the know-how required to acquire prospective customers is an intuitive skill that is learned by sales representatives through experience and, in many cases, it is not part of the institutional knowledge of the company. In response, Hitachi has developed a customer acquisition support service for identifying introducer models (key people), and for visualizing the human relationships between customers in the form of a network. Along with an AI technology that generates a list of existing customers who have a high likelihood of providing leads on new prospective customers, this article proposes applying this service to support sales, starting with financial institutions.

In effect Hitachi is using AI to identify opinion formers and their communities and the means to use this capability to build communities.

Mike Kelly et al are working on how to make better use of the vast amount of accumulating evidence from behaviour change intervention (BCI) evaluations and promote the uptake of that evidence into a wide range of contexts to implement background behavioural change and at the same time create relationships. It sounds like a PR dream!

Flexibility with constant changes,

The CBI tells us that by 2025 (6.5 year’s time) “…. All of these changes and many others will combine to create a work experience that is very different. Workers will be constantly connected; freelance and flexible work will be commonplace, and employees will be able to enjoy a highly personalised and collaborative work experience.


AI is being used in education in many ways. Adoption of best practice and harnessing existing tech can be used in mentoring based on open source, industry wide, experience. The US Navy is already showing the way. This is a CPD course in the making.

Familiarity with theories and its application

This is another case of using AI to interpret experience to expose theory and practice to practitioners. Imagining AI bots offering experience is not so difficult in 2018. By 2019 it could be commonplace.

Strategic thinking

Accounting and consulting firm Deloitte has developed a new Artificial Intelligence (AI) based method that can produce strategic market analysis and benchmark reports in the blink of an eye.

Hywel Ball, EY’s UK head of audit, says new technology such as data analytics, AI and robotic process automation is changing both what and how audits are undertaken. “It is enabling us to search, sift and sort through large quantities of data – from company reports to social media – these tools are helping auditors to identify potential areas of risk and to understand a company’s performance at a more granular level,” he says.

They are also providing insights into areas that were once thought to be impossible to measure, such as culture. “These insights can be really valuable to clients. What was once called the auditor’s ‘nose’ – or gut instinct – is increasingly being automated by advanced data analytics,” he says.
“AI can automate a lot of knowledge gathering and will help free up our people to focus on higher-value strategic work and provide more fulfilling responsibilities. These developments will, in turn, create opportunities to develop new roles and positions for the future, while the skills we need will also continue to evolve.

Ethical considerations

DeepMind Ethics Society (DMES), a unit comprised of both full-time DeepMind employees and external fellows, is the company’s latest attempt to scrutinise the societal impacts of the technologies it creates.

There might be tools that inform our decisions now and, in the future, but predominantly, these will remain the domain of humans.

Researchers aggregated millions of human responses to teach an AI how to behave when faced with an ethical dilemma.

Skills with zero touch - a perspective.

Jean Valin put forward a perspective that there are PR skills beyond the reach of AI in the near future. I have put forward a contrary view and have shown that most ‘zero touch’ activities have an AI counterpart.

Our problem is finding out how we can harness these capabilities and make them part of PR education and practice.

Of course, there is more to be done to help make the transformative technologies servants of PR practice and competitively ahead of those who wish to invade our space.

There is much more to do. A lot is to develop a more complete response to Jean’s work. It is a great start.

In the meantime, there is a lot of fundamental research that needs doing. We need a much more profound understanding of many areas of PR to inform our responses to the challenges of the emerging transformative technologies.

David Phillips

June 2018

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