One of the greatest challenges facing business today is communications. At face value, this can seem counter-intuitive. After all, it’s never been easier for a brand to get information out and into the hands of its consumers, influencers and the media.
More and more, however, businesses are discovering that getting the information out there isn’t the whole battle — in fact, it isn’t even close. We work to get our communications out in the wild, ready to consume, only to have it too often fall on deaf ears, or more accurately, on distracted eyes.
The more important battle is the battle of relevance to the audience, a battle that includes every other piece of content and an equation, which is made up of many things including medium, message and context. If we don’t get relevance right, our actions simply won’t get rewarded with attention.
It’s no surprise that the communications industry is transforming. We’re at a classic Andy Grove inflection point where the old strategic picture dissolves, giving way to the new. As new channels come into being every day, the communications landscape changes and so too must our strategies and plans.
I’d argue that we in public relations have an advantage, because we naturally understand organic communications and their network effects. But truly understanding what those effects will be — and predicting them accurately — is the challenge before us. This is our inflection point. We are in a data-driven world. Taking PR to the next level in this world requires new tools and new kinds of thinking. At the core, our communications goal is the same, but how we get there and the role we play needs to be dramatically different.
To understand why, look no further than your phone. To understand how, look at chess.
Since Garry Kasparov lost to Deep Blue in 1997, there have been many more advances in artificial intelligence. Some of the advances have been staggering: AI that drives cars, AI that diagnoses disease, AI that can win at Go. But in the chess world, where there are now computer vs. computer tournaments and computer-aided human vs. computer-aided human tournaments, we see that AI hasn’t doomed humans into irrelevance. In fact, a weak human player plus a computer can beat a strong computer alone. More importantly, a weak player with a strong computer can beat a strong player with a weaker computer. The technology has shifted the balance of power not to computers alone, but to the humans with the better tech.
For another example of the role we need to play, look at meteorology. Not long ago, a meteorologist would take a look at different measurements such as temperature, humidity and barometric pressure, and use those measurements to make a prediction themselves based on their knowledge, research and intuition. Today, this process has been transformed. It’s been automated and scaled with data and involves advanced simulations or machine learning algorithms or both. A meteorologist looks at different weather predictions created by systems and decides which model is correct.
In each of these examples, an expert still plays a very important role, but functions much more as an editor than a practitioner or problem-solver. An editor drawing from detailed analysis and intelligence like never before. An editor augmented with AI.
This might sound prohibitively expensive and difficult to achieve, but it doesn’t have to be. The saying within the AI community is that it’s only AI while it’s being researched. After that, it’s extremely specialized software that can make us much better at what we do — from understanding or managing a crisis, to designing new customer experiences, to understanding what particular mix of content, context, message and medium is going to connect with someone. We will get more efficient as well by automating repetitive analyses, deliverables and activities with systems that will do the processing for us.
And it’s not just about getting better at what we already do. New tools will enable new possibilities for integrated services and relationships. Specialized data mining will bring new insights and valuable domain-specific models of communications and behavior. Specialized bots can help deliver some form of interaction at scale. Some of these tools already exist, but it will be up to PR agencies to integrate and truly evolve them. I’m sure we’ll be up to the task.
But it won’t be without its bumps. We’ve started augmenting many of our processes at PadillaCRT, and it’s no easy task. These are new muscles we’re developing, but communications as a practice has always been about evolution.
Our mediums have always been changing. The difference today is that we’re not just looking at a new medium, but a whole new communications infrastructure: one that requires a new mindset as much as it requires skill; a mindset that demands better intelligence in the service of decisions; and a mindset that stands comfortably on the shoulders of some artificial giants.
This article originally appeared in O’Dwyer’s, November 2016 – Technology Issue.