It's now been a year and a half since the launch of ChatGPT: the LLM (‘Large Language Model') powered AI tool. Tools like these have the power to transform the professional services sector. My own PR business, Sapience Communications, is no exception.

If a LLM can generate the persuasive language that my profession trades in, then is it curtains for human-centred PR? Opinions vary. In the year and a half since the launch of ChatGPT, no settled consensus has emerged. Some remain fatalistic. At a recent panel of PR professionals, the best the assembled could say on the subject was, "We're not doomed immediately."

By contrast, some PRs have taken to AI with perhaps a little too much gusto. The Evening Standard has reported a startling rise in instances of the word ‘delve' in incoming emails from PRs - ‘delve' being, apparently, a favoured word of ChatGPT. It's becoming something of a running joke in the PR world that every new firm describes itself as ‘AI-powered': a term that's often used to give a tech frisson, rather than to say anything specific about how AI will be used to enhance service.

The quandary remains. According to research, 43% of PR professionals are uncertain about how AI can or should be applied to the profession.

I believe that it is time for PR to get more specific about how AI can and cannot improve our work: avoiding sweeping statements about it being either a panacea, or the end of our profession. In its current stage of development, AI - though not without its pitfall and limitations - is a tool for streamlining the work of PR professionals, giving them time to focus on the creative work that truly makes a difference to clients.

Surveying the landscape

One essential task for PRs is to have a sense of the media landscape, and where our various clients fit into it. Identifying the key audiences; stakeholders; outlets; journalists; or sources of leads is typically the first step in any successful program of media relations or lead generation.

ChatGPT and similar tools can simplify and improve on this process. AI tools can be used to identify a client's key audience, relevant media titles, as well as the pertinent trends and conversations in their sector. This gives PR professionals an important head-start in positioning clients as thought leaders: ensuring that they are intervening in the latest sector issues, and reaching out to the full roster of journalists who might be interested.

Such tools are also boon to lead generation and email marketing. AI tools can analyse large volumes of consumer data to prospect for potential customers or partners, scraping their contact details to generate a sound list of leads in a matter of minutes. AI tools can also be used to hone the email campaigns themselves, identifying the trends that customers in the market are interested in, and even predicting the efficacy of campaigns - giving PRs the chance to adjust their messaging accordingly.

Reducing administrative burdens

PR also involves a fairly large number of rote tasks - such as reporting; pro forma documents; media monitoring; and data entry. AI tools can put a real dent in this workload.

AI tools can now draft initial versions of press releases, getting down the boilerplate content and factual information which PRs can then add the needed texture and flair to.

AI tools can also analyse media sentiment, giving PRs an accurate picture of where their clients currently stand in the eyes of the media and the general public. Before AI this had to be a manual task, which often led to incomplete or partial estimates of sentiment. By automating the collation of this data, AI frees up time for PRs to focus on how to act on this data: crafting the new narratives, creative ideas, or crisis comms in response.

Unsurprisingly, it is in these areas of the business that AI tools have penetrated furthest. According to the WEF, 65% of PR professionals surveyed believe that AI will improve their data analysis.

Can AI do our creative thinking for us?

Is AI, ultimately, a substitute for the creative thinking that lies at the heart of PR? Not in its current form. Of course, tools like ChatGPT can be an excellent spur to creativity for PRs. You can, for example, ask the tool to spit out a list of key sector issues, pitch ideas, or other initial prompts.

Again, these tools can give us this information because they have been trained on terabytes upon terabytes of existing information on the internet. But therein lies its weakness. AI tools in 2024 can give us information based only on what is currently being said and written. It can, to a large extent, only reproduce the conventional wisdom on a given topic.

But our job as PR professionals is to challenge the conventional wisdom about our clients. We must, to borrow from Thomas Hardy, run Far from the Madding Crowd to find new approaches and angles that change the conversation. That, at least for now, still requires a human element.

Thinking from first principles about what a PRs role is offers the best way to ensure that, as these tools develop, we adopt them in an appropriate and responsible way. In charting a course for the profession in the age of AI, we should be concrete, specific, and hard-nosed about what current AI tools can do for us, and what they cannot do. Let's have less doom-and-gloom; but also, a little less pie-in-the-sky.