Myopic PR industry set to miss yet another boat?

With the sun beating down on the Small Data Forum Podnosticators on day three of our podcast recording retreat in Ríogordo, Andalucía, we turn our attention back to the world of AI and its potential impact on the world of communications.

With a new generative engine popping up almost every day – for words, structure, music, images, film, translation; you name it, it’s appearing – we consider the approach taken by the communications industry to this brave new world.

PR industry short-sightedness

Neville kicks us off, citing a recent study from the U.K.’s Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA) and its global sister, the International Communications Consultancies Organisation (ICCO).

The study found that fully 30% of the two bodies’ members had never used ChatGPT or a similar AI chatbot, while 25% claim they never will, to assist them in their work. Neville finds these figures staggering, while for Sam this shows a remarkable lack of curiosity from an industry that could be massively disrupted by AI, as well as hugely enhanced.

Thomas takes less of a technical and more of a philosophical approach. He’s interested in what PR is, whether it’s history written by the winners (from Alexander the Great to 17th century popes); from the spin and snake oil of ‘the Greatest Showman’, Victorian PT Barnum, to Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays and his invention (or at least first codification) of Propaganda.

Thomas gives us some tantalising clues on the Delphi study he’s involved in with friend of the show, Ana Adi, Professor of Communications and Vice President at Quadriga University, Berlin.

The 25-country, three-language, 400-participant quali-quant research aims to assess the state of the art in modern PR. What is it, how should it be defined, in what ways (if any) does / can it contribute social value?

Without giving us a sneak peak of the findings, Thomas believes that part of PR’s historical problem with technology is related to its identity and sense of self. Does PR even know what it is?

The purpose of communication?

Things are perhaps more black-and-white (and simplistic, some might argue) for Sam. For this reformed one-time (long-time) PR man, whatever its intended stakeholder audience, PR is at its heart about communication.

As the American business writer Dan Pink says in his book To Sell Is Human: “We are all in the moving business” – the business of persuading others to act, one way or another. And yet, time and again over the past 25 years, the PR industry – both consultancy and in-house – has failed to embrace the opportunities afforded by technology.

Websites, social media platforms, and now – it seems from the PRCA/ICCO report – AI are someone else’s responsibility, when the opportunity should lie in the feet of public relations.

Sam recalls – having been in the eye of the storm at the time – that far too many PR agencies failed to invest in platforms, training, and analytics to get a decent handle on social media. They allowed themselves to be outflanked and outspent by digital agencies, influencer agencies, media agencies for heaven’s sake.

He recalls – with an inward wince and curling up – former colleagues advising global brand teams on blogger, influencer, and social strategy … having never blogged or posted anything themselves. It was as if PR “professionals” believed they were above that.

He can’t decide whether the ostrich or the dodo is a better metaphor, but he’s convinced that over AI – yet again – PR folk are sleepwalking their way into redundancy by failing to spot an open goal.

Many more voices matter in the age of AI

Neville wonders whether this is because of control, to which Sam counters four-plus billion smart phones means many more voices matter. Communication is no longer about stale, pale, middle-aged white men in grey suits trying to control the narrative – BBC management, please note! – and many communicators beyond the PR function have grasped this truth, leaving the ostrich-dodos for dust. (See here for our podcast from yesterday on Gary vs Suella).

Thomas’ career involvement in communications has focused on measurement and evaluation, working with communications teams and agencies to understand audiences, channels, and messages that resonate best and deliver impact.

The trouble with social media in particular, is that too many PR people grasped at vanity output metrics as if evidence of work done was evidence of impact.

Real world impact over outputs

Sam works a lot with academics, for whom real-world impact is a crucial yardstick by which future funding is granted. His experience is that academia leaves industry and their communications teams, in-house and agency, in the slow lane.

Thomas references a recent report by Professor Jim McNamara from the University of Technology at Sydney, the leading academic light in PR measurement and evaluation for the past 25 years.

Following recent work with the World Health Organization on COVID communications, he analysed all the metrics being offered by vendors, and pulls very few punches in his round criticism of the enduring nature of way too many vanity metrics. The title of his March 2023 paper leaves little room for the imagination: “A call for reconfiguring evaluation models, pedagogy, and practice: Beyond reporting media-centric outputs and fake impact scores”.

Neville is astounded that, despite the best efforts of industry associations such as the Association for the Measurement and Evaluation of Communication (AMEC) – and its Barcelona Principles, first codified in 2010 and updated at least twice since then – the meaningless, zombie measure of Advertising Value Equivalency (AVE) still refuses to die.

Thomas, who leads the AMEC course on measurement and evaluation at PR Academy, believes that AMEC and others have helped to professionalise PR measurement and evaluation with their planning tools and frameworks, but also wonders why the industry cannot shake off the AVE succubus.

For Sam, it’s because communications and PR people don’t swim far enough up the food chain, have neither proper measures of impact or the ear of the CFO, and so will always be seen as “the colouring-in department”.

Listen to Episode 69:

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