The rise of robo-PR?

‘Smart’ is the new normal across a host of industries at the minute, artificial intelligence and smart cities are becoming a reality and smart devices are taking the consumer world by storm. Could PR be another industry set to witness the rise of the robots?

According to the Oxford University and Deloitte ‘job automation calculator‘, PR professionals are relatively safe – with the algorithm warning there is only a 18% chance of our jobs becoming automated. Watch out waiters and waitresses though, the computer estimates a 90% chance for restaurant servers.

I think it’s worth investigating where automation is creeping into the world of PR. Can professionals and machines co-exist?

Content creation
It’s well reported the Associated Press counts a non-human presence among its staff, the AP ‘robo-journalist’ is filing 3,000 stories a quarter. Even the busiest journalist can’t manage anywhere near 33.3 articles a day. That’s 1.3 stories an hour – before eating or sleeping.

The robot trawls online articles to publish news articles, and it’s flawless in the AP style guide – not a hint of human error there.

In fact the WSJ has its own robot trawler, the ‘Buzzword generator‘. This aggregates all the emails and pitches sent to the WSJ staff, then provides some interesting sentences. Here’s one:

“As part of our review of innovation, we have decided to move forward with dynamic synergy. It is what it is.”

However, the obvious limitation of both of these robots is creativity. No amount of trawling can produce anything with the depth of a positioning white paper, bylined thought-leadership or even a blog. These require different styles, tones and structure – and that’s before working in the underlying client messages that is such an important PR skill.

Automated distribution… and pick-up
The ‘spray & pray’ approach to distribution my colleague Jon Brown recently warned against is an example of an almost entirely automated process.

Press release distribution is still mostly done over a newswire service. Once uploaded, a machine will review the release to check spelling and grammar, before distributing to a predetermined list.

The automation doesn’t stop, there’s no human at the other end of this email – just a script updating a ‘press release’ section of hundreds of websites. It won’t be read by a journalist or prospect at all – just RSS feeds on third party websites which automatically take an excerpt of the release and insert it into a stream of other stories.

There’s no opportunity in this process to connect with an actual journalist. PR professionals need to establish a content-based relationship with target journalists. This can only be done by providing content direct to their inbox. Content isn’t just press releases, it’s the mix of bylined articles and other content we’ve already established only a human can create, let alone pitch.

Monitoring and reporting
When content has been accepted by a journalist the next step for a PR professional is to monitor for the resulting coverage. This could mean seeing the content online shortly or a hardcopy issue date.

There’s a wealth of reporting tools on sale to ‘help’ PR and marketing professionals track press coverage. In theory this works, but an algorithm can’t filter what’s relevant and what isn’t – I’ve seen reports skewed because of keyword tracking resulting in pick-up of other companies’ releases.

In terms of hard or e-copy coverage I’m still yet to see a tool which can even get near discovering coverage in an actual magazine.

The percentage game
All the processes outlined here are crucial elements of any successful PR strategy, and at the centre of them all is a human professional. There’s definite value to introducing elements of automation to ease workload, but no way robots can grasp all the nuances of press relations.

I think 18% looks safe for PR professionals. The robots have got some catching up to do.

Jamie Kightley is Head of Pitch&Place at IBA International

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