PR’s increasing complexity is reflected by its ambiguity; we’ll still require an element of humanity to make sense of it all
So, the account executive’s days are numbered, are they? A combination of artificial intelligence (AI), Big Data, algorithms and virtual reality (VR) will render the mainstay of our industry redundant. By 2020, 85% of customer interactions will be managed without people, according to Microsoft. Customers will still be able to have “conversations” with businesses – but without the need for staff, the argument goes. While I can’t bring myself to subscribe to Professor Stephen Hawking’s view  – that the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race – but as technologies mature, deep-learning algorithms will minimise the need for human interaction.
In PR terms, does this mean that mapping and validating influencers, engaging and following them up, generating copy, tracking coverage…will all be delegated to technology, removing an entire layer (or overhead) from our industry?
I’m not convinced. Just because tech can replace a human worker doesn’t mean we’re always going to want that. In some instances, we want both – the human operational excellence, and the benefits of technology. Striking the right balance between automation and hands-on, interpersonal interaction is the trick; and the PR world will prove no exception.
One area still dependent on human judgement (for the foreseeable future, at least) is ethics. I’m not simply referring to compliance, but actually identifying the right course of action in the face of multiple and differing indicators, to protect a brand. One course of action may be appropriate in one market, or consumer group, while inappropriate in/to others. For instance, acknowledging consumer complaints on social media and providing online vouchers to those impacted may be appropriate for a European airline whose bookings are predominantly Web-based. The same course of action would be highly inappropriate for homeowners in Puerto Rico whose possessions have been blown away by adverse weather. In the case of the latter, face-to-face meetings, town halls, human contact could all be indispensable following such a traumatic event; such impacted people have a right (and need) to talk about their experiences. It’s fundamental to the therapeutic process.
PR agencies perennially operate in an ill-defined zone, somewhere between (objective) legal compliance and (subjective) empathy; and I’m not restricting this to crisis situations. Part of a PR firm’s raison d’etre should be to make sense of ambiguity, to try and decrypt the outside world for brand managers, and to identify risks and opportunities as quickly as possible. And ambiguity is everywhere.
Any communications professional who has spent time at headquarters and in the field will be aware of the difference between a ‘corporate message’ and the on-the-ground reality. Positioning defined at head office is invariably the fruit of painstaking ‘negotiations’ with multiple stakeholders, from sales and marketing, to product development and customer servicing, each of whom has a particular perspective and set of priorities. The corporate comms role in this scenario is really about managing (and often placating) these various agendas.
Out in the field, the reality can be starkly different – ‘market leadership’ may count for little in the cut and thrust of a commoditised market, local vendors may enjoy other advantages such as lower levels of compliance or ability to discount. Seasonal peaks will be distinct to each market – Valentine’s Day is 12 June in Brazil, not 14 February as everywhere else; Europeans do not celebrate Thanksgiving, the UK is unlikely to mark Independence Day.
Budgets can also dramatically influence the mix and type of communication appropriate for each market; a creative PR campaign ‘backed’ by extensive ATL advertising, may not be feasible in a remote market with a smaller budget, the local PR firm may work under the direction of a country sales manager who has a preference for a certain type of messaging or activation, which will also influence the approach.
Automation, Big Data insights and algorithms will certainly help inform decision-making but, in the final instance, I believe that tact, diplomacy, relationships, local knowledge, taste, human judgement…the essence of PR, will remain essential to the mix.
Finally, PR should represent an ‘honest arbiter’ between aspiration and reality; the difference between the values a brand actively promotes and the way it actually behaves every day. There is nothing wrong with ambition – few of us would claim to adhere to our desired standards every moment or every day, and brands are no exception. Sound PR counsel should alert brands to the occasions when the gap between aspiration and reality becomes untenable, and either one or the other needs to be tempered.
Such counsel — the result of experience, ethics, standards and sound judgement — is unlikely to be devolved to an algorithm just yet. If I were an account executive starting out, these are the qualities I would nurture to guarantee my indispensability in an increasingly automated world.