AI in Communications: Embrace It (Cautiously!)

Over the past year, I’ve worked on several exciting marketing and PR campaigns for clients about their collective use of artificial intelligence in a variety of settings.  From incredibly intuitive chatbots in customer call centers, to AI tools that accurately predict customer behavior based on a wealth of analytics, it’s clear that AI is being used in practical ways by businesses in many industries.  In each of these campaigns, one of the main points has always been a reminder that AI should not exist to fully replace humans in any job function.  Rather, it should be viewed as a tool to increase productivity, provide powerful insights and data, and allow employees to spend more time utilizing the skill sets they were hired for.

These recent client projects have had me thinking about why these same cautions apply to AI’s use in the marketing and PR industry.   We need to look no further than The Microsoft Tay debacle of a few years ago to remind us to tread very carefully when implementing AI tools.  In a short amount of time, a group of ill-intentioned Internet users taught Microsoft’s new chatbot to be incredibly racist and misogynistic.  Microsoft responded quickly, but the damage was done and it left the company in an embarrassing and regrettable situation.

So how should marketers begin to approach AI to enhance public-facing communications?   First of all,  I’m not suggesting that AI’s rise in the communications landscape is all doom and gloom.  Clearly, there are a number of ways that AI can make our industry more effective and efficient. From automating many arduous daily tasks, to providing powerful data, audience research, sentiment analysis and campaign performance metrics that we’ve never seen before, the proper use of AI can and should be a boon to marketers.

However, relying too heavily on AI has the very real potential of backfiring.  Beyond the brand damage created by the most dramatic scenarios like Microsoft Tay, there are some things that AI simply can’t (and may never be able to) do:

Storytelling: While I’ve seen some tools out there that curate marketing copy for brands, they severely lack the ability to tell meaningful stories that resonate with audiences…which should be at the core of any modern communications campaign.  Our friends at SpinSucks do a great job of explaining why, and remind us that “good storytelling requires creativity, critical-thinking skills, self-awareness, and empathy.”  These are fundamentally human traits that AI tools are not even close to being able to replicate.

Authenticity:  Research study after research study confirm the importance of authentic communications from brands, with one study reporting that 90% of consumers said it plays a role in deciding which brands to support.   In my view, this is especially relevant with social media marketing. One of my personal pet peeves is when a brand replies to every social media comment with the same set of canned responses, making it clear that they aren’t really listening and have simply  deployed an AI tool to automate responses. In an effort to save time, these companies are doing nothing more than damaging their brands.  Brands should avoid using AI tools to create automatic responses that aren’t first fully vetted by human eyes.

Effective Crisis Response: AI tools provide brands with the ability to identify, or even predict, a crisis (especially a reputational crisis) far before it begins to influence public opinion.  These tools can analyze millions of social posts and media articles for dialogue patterns, sentiment shifts and trigger words in a matter of moments, giving PR teams a huge head start in planning their responses.  What  these tools cannot do is develop the right response for a specific situation. No matter how sophisticated these tools become, I don’t see a day in the near future when a machine will be better at understanding the unique dynamics of fast moving communications crises than trained human PR pros.

The bottom line is that AI has made its mark in our industry and is here to stay, so we should educate ourselves about and embrace these new tools. Most importantly, we should see it as our collective responsibility to use them appropriately and resist the urge to make our industry overly robotic.

Author: Mike Trainor
Mike Trainor is our Vice President.

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