PR practitioners aware of huge potential of AI in PR, but have limited knowledge

A new research report reveals that public relations practitioners are aware of the huge potential of AI in PR and big data, but possess limited knowledge on the technical aspects of both.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) AI and Big Data Readiness Report – Assessing the Public Relations Profession’s Preparedness for an AI Future research provides an overview of current AI understanding and preparedness within public relations. It outlines how the profession should equip itself to exploit the potential and guard against the possible dangers of AI.

It finds a significant number of PR practitioners have limited knowledge of AI and lack confidence in using it (43.2%), compared with only a small number who feel “very comfortable” (13.9%). However, practitioners are optimistic and have an eagerness to learn. Their challenge is they do not know what they need to know and they don’t know where to start.

The report finds:

  • 41.5% of respondents claim to understand what AI as a technology means but do not consider themselves technical
  • Over one in three (38.9%) PR practitioners feel ‘excited’ about AI compared to just 3.9% who feel ‘overwhelmed’
  • 30% of practitioners are familiar with AI technology but don’t feel confident to apply their knowledge to their role
  • One in five practitioners (20.7%) feel very comfortable using data and analytics in their role compared to just 8.2% of those who feel the same about AI
  • Around one in five practitioners are familiar with the relevance of both AI and big data on the communication profession

One of the more alarming statistics revealed by the research is just 4.3% of respondents said that ‘AI knowledge’ is represented in PR teams, while 27.9% say ‘IT/Digital/Analytics’ and 30.7% say nowhere, not sure or not relevant. Given the importance and opportunities of AI coupled with the ethical and reputational challenges, this is alarming.

“Two years ago when we produced the ‘AI and the Professions’ report we said that public relations was in danger of sleepwalking into the technological future. Unfortunately, nothing has really changed. The knowledge and skills that have been acquired, driven partly by the COVID 19 pandemic, have been largely tactical. We need to get a strategic grip and determine for ourselves what our enhanced role and contribution can be in the organisations we serve. Otherwise others will make the decision for us and it won’t be in our favour. This Report serves as the wake-up call.”

Emeritus Professor Anne Gregory Hon FCIPR and co-author of the report

The AI and Big Data Readiness Report – Assessing the Public Relations Profession’s Preparedness for an AI Future report was written by Emeritus Professor Anne Gregory Hon FCIPR and Dr Swati Virmani. It is an analysis of a global survey of public relations practitioners and academics (280 usable responses) and video/written evidence from senior practitioners (10 submissions) concerning the profession’s knowledge, skills, adoption and attitudes towards AI, and to a lesser extent big data. Most (55.7%) of respondents worked in-house for an organisation, businsess or brand with 50% in Europe, 24% in North America and the emainder in Africa, Asia, Australia, the Middle East and South America.

Understanding and use of AI tools

The report finds that practitioners have an awareness and understanding across a range of uses of AI tools, aren’t necessarily using them (or I wonder if it’s possibly some aren’t aware that they are using them or being used by them!). AI in PR that practitioners are aware of include social media implementation tools, monitoring and analysis, and AI enabled writing (a core skill). Other areas where AI tools are being used include attribution software, behaviour change, crisis management, display marketing and communication research. More than half (52.5%) said ‘no’ when asked whether they used AI tools in
their PR role.

Development of AI skills and training

Most practitioners say they have acquired AI in PR skills by on the job training along with webinars and awareness building courses. Among those who have no skills, there is a realisation that they need training, but finding the right choice of topic/courses remains the biggest challenge.

Most of the AI in PR training I’ve done with clients is at the awareness raising level of helping them to understand the potential opportunities and treats of AI. It has also focused on the ethicial implications of AI, not just for public relations and communications, but more importantly for how an organisation uses it. For example, lockdown and working from home has led many employers to start to deploy AI-powered ‘spyware’ to monitor workers, which raises huge ethical issues with potentially huge reputational risks with many stakeholders.

The other type of training tends to be more practical around vendors and services such as lthe multiple GPT-3 powered AI writing tools which are now on the market, as well as social media and medio monitoring and analysis tools.

Understanding of AI tools and systems

It’s worth reading the commentary in the report on this section. One thought I’d add to the commentary is that the hype and ‘smoke and mirrors’ used by the vendors of PRTech, CommsTech and MarTech services and products make it hard to know to what extent they actually use AI or artificial intelligence.

AI in PR training and skills

The report has a lot of data on the development of AI in PR skills. There are tables showing how people have developed data and AI skills, what prevents them from gaining AI skills, the biggest challenges to upskilling in data and AI and the AI skills people believe to be most relevant to PR practitioners.

Respondents say the three biggest barriers to upskilling are ‘it’s hard to find courses for non-technical people’, ‘not sure what course I should do’ and ‘not sure what I need to know’.

The first of these is why I’ve been running a ‘what is AI and what do PR and communications people need to know’ course. It’s a useful precursor to the next steps of actually acquiring new knowledge and skills. It was the basis of recent course I ran in Brussels (remotely) for the Council of Ministers of the EU. We not only looked at AI and big data, but lots of other technology developments that PR anc communications professionals need to be aware of if they are to be ready for the future.

Top challenge for PR professionals when implementing AI across an enterprise

It is the lack of awareness around the tools (31.8%) and knowledge/training (29.3%) that emerge as the biggest challenges.

What do PR practitioners really think about AI in PR?

The final part of report is fascinating as it provides three word clouds of the responses to three free form questions. PR practitioners see exciting potential opportunties, but also aware of the hype and issues around ethics. But many are unsure of what the changes will be with automate and efficiency both being cited. The fears are based primarily around job loss and ethical concerns.

You can download the full AI and Big Data Readiness report on the CIPR website.

The answer to the central question, which is ‘how ready is the public relations profession for the AI/Big Data age?’ is that it is not as ready as it should be. This isn’t good news for the communications and PR profession, but is good news for me as it again highlights the opportunities for my business to help communications and PR practitioners understand the future, identify and use new tools and do professional development and and training.