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PR 2020: Automation and Chatbot Press Offices?

Given the rapid pace of change in recent years it may at first glance appear impossible to predict what the future may hold for public relations, but I think there are some things we can almost say for certain.

The media landscape will continue to change

Will we still have print newspapers in 2020? Perhaps a few will dwindle on, but it’s likely we’ll see fewer than we do today. There are redundancies, consolidation, and quite significant financial losses reported every week – and it’s not just newspapers. Online news sites, trade media, specialist titles, and so on are all feeling the pinch. None have yet worked out how to monetise their content in a way that satisfies consumers AND makes good business sense.

That said, we are consuming more content than ever before. We’ll continue to turn to niche publishers and content creators – I doubt in 2020 we’ll still call them ‘influencers’ but we will look to them for news, views, advice and commentary.

We’ll change too

While there is still some debate about the current size of our industry – the latest findings of the PRCA Census claims there are some 83,000 PR practitioners in the UK – I think we can also say that there will be more of us in 2020 than there are in 2016. We may not all call ourselves public relations professionals, but that is another debate.

In the wake of the recent referendum result we’re in for an interesting few years, as individuals and organisations of all kinds vie to have their voices heard, needs understood and policy influenced in their favours. The outcome of the vote presents many challenges for communications, but also any, many opportunities.

There will undoubtedly be growth in the public affairs sector as all manner of stakeholders seek help navigating the complicated policy landscape as we seek to extricate ourselves from the European Union – in whatever guise that may be. But there will need to be a joined up approach. It won’t be good enough to just present views and cases through the standard political machinery. We will need to see more and better integration of communications and public affairs campaigns to have voices heard and acted upon in what is likely to be a fiercely competitive few years.

Hopefully becoming more professional

I hope we’ll also become more professional as an industry. It’s time some among us committed to more ethical practice, transparency and good, honest comms.

But the most interesting change we’ll see is in the technology we use

Perhaps I’m biased. I do work closely with some truly innovative tech firms. But I think we’ll see huge changes in the way we communicate on behalf of our organisations or clients, brought on by the incredible breakthroughs enabled by new technologies.

There has been a lot of hype around some of these – most notably Artificial Intelligence (AI) – and some of this has gone as far as to say that we’re approaching a point at where machines can replace humans in certain roles and industries. Some have suggested it could impact public relations, with automation enabling the same work to be carried out with much lower headcounts. I don’t subscribe to that view myself.

I believe we will see our lives made simpler and our ability to achieve communications success improved through augmenting our own human intelligence with insights and information made available through machine learning – predictive analytics, signal processing, language processing and the like. I have spoken to enough leading technologists and experts in this field over the past year or so to know just what might be possible in the near future and am incredibly excited at what opportunities that presents to all manner of industries, PR included.

If we can outsource some of the grunt work and information processing to machines and clever algorithms we can free up our time to focus on being more strategic. We can feed the technology huge amounts of data and generate insights it might have taken many hours of intensive research to glean. In being more informed and more strategic we will be far better counsellors and deliver far better work.

There are limitations

You will never be able to replace good PR practitioners with machines, a computer can’t tell you what will make an emotional connection with a target audience and drive support for a third-sector campaign. It doesn’t have the media nouse to tell you to pull the plug on an announcement if a breaking story is likely to dominate the news agenda that day. But it can help you make better decisions, and that ability, coupled with a skilled communicator, is a winning combination.

AI is one of many innovations to look out for

Augmenting human intelligence is only one area in which tech can help PR succeed. There are many others. There is no real reason why we won’t see an organisation operate a chatbot press office – providing answers to straightforward, common questions, issuing pre-programmed statements, or directing enquiries to the correct person when its limitations are reached – that is something we can build even today. It would be better if we waited a while until the technology allowed it to be better functioning, rather than simply launching a tired old ‘world’s first…’ story, but there is nothing stopping someone testing this now.

But the future is bright

I’m optimistic about PR’s future, and as an esteemed colleague often remarks, “there’s never been a better time to work in public relations”, he’s right – there hasn’t. Yet.

Not only am I optimistic, I’m excited and intrigued at what the future might hold. If recent weeks are anything to go by, even the best predictions can go out of the window in an instant!

And, at the risk of coming over a bit New Labour, I think that things can only get better.

And I’m very much looking forward to it