The number of jobs likely to be replaced or completely transformed by artificial intelligence (AI) in the next few years seems to rise with every new estimate, to judge from the spread of articles in the business press. What does this mean for PR?
Let’s assume, to start with, that the rising wave of automation has no effect whatsoever on the work of PR professionals. Even if this is true, it is still important for everyone to know about. AI is going to bring changes to every sector of the economy, with major impacts on the workforce, so the internal comms function will need to understand those changes to help their organisations adapt. Likewise, there may be major reputational challenges as firms restructure, and agencies will have a role to play in maintaining stakeholder relations.
Beyond this, PR surely also has a wider role to play. Over the next decade or so, AI will have an impact on how we function as a society – how much work we have to do; what the nature of that work is; and what we do when we’re not working. The AI industry likes to tell us that, as with every previous wave of technology, AI won’t be a net destroyer of jobs – for every old job that goes, new jobs will appear. That may be true, but even if it is, the short-term effects could easily be similar to the changes we’ve experienced from globalisation. Experts may no longer be in fashion, but someone needs to plan and curate the conservations about what all this means, if we want to find a collective way forward. If public relations as a discipline can’t make a leading contribution to this, it is not really serving a useful social purpose.
Now let us set aside the initial assumption that AI will have no direct impact on PR, and examine it more closely. Daniel Susskind, author of The Future of the Professions, recounts that whenever he talks to an audience of professionals, they get the big picture and completely see that AI will have an enormous impact on everyone else, but not them. In their own eyes, they are so special, and the value they bring to their clients is so unique, that no automated process could possibly replace it. Doctors can absolutely see how AI will replace the work of lawyers; lawyers see how it will remove the need for much of what planners and surveyors do; planners and surveyors look forward to a world in which they no longer need marketing consultants. They are all right, and of course for that reason they are all wrong. Too often, people ask the wrong question – ‘Can AI do this?’ The answer is pretty much universally ‘yes, it can’. The question is no longer whether it is technically possible for an automated system to undertake certain tasks, but whether it makes good business sense to invest in an automated system. In most cases, for now, the answer to that question is still ‘no’, but that answer becomes less clear as we look further into the future.
Article written by Alastair McCapra, chief executive at CIPR