Considerations on the Use of AI in Public Relations

We live in an age of disruption. In March 2020, a worldwide pandemic began. In February 2022, the world was seized with anxiety over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

One year later, many of us are grappling with the implications of artificial intelligence technology that can search the internet, write text, edit images, create videos and speak in lifelike voices. Software platforms now providing these services include ChatGPT, GPT-4, Synthesia, ElevenLabs’ Prime Voice AI and BeFunky. On Nov. 30, 2022, ChatGPT appeared like an earthquake, creating its own fault lines for organizations to navigate.

Recently, Laura Dunham, Ph.D., dean of the Opus College of Business at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis, asked a conference of university and college deans how many were allowing their students to use ChatGPT, the advanced chatbot that can write texts in response to human questions. At least half of the deans in the room raised their hands.

Here are some factors that both educators and communicators might consider about the use of artificial intelligence technology in their daily practices:

• Understand AI’s capabilities and limitations.

Artificial intelligence tools such as ChatGPT quickly aggregate information and use rudimentary rules to generate narratives that are substantive but generic. The technology scrapes information from the internet to create a written response based on probability, not reason.  

While ChatGPT’s artificial intelligence lets it learn from interacting with humans, the technology is only as good as the questions we ask it. Sound familiar? As communicators, isn’t the information we gather, including asking subject matter experts, only as good as our questions?

• Use time saved to work business strategy into communications tactics.

To succeed, public relations must approach communications strategically. The best PR practitioners infuse organizational/business strategies and proven communication strategies into their communications tactics.

Artificial intelligence will never replace the reasoned insights that we gain through in-person contact with audiences and industry experts. The technology also won’t supplant our interaction with senior managers in our organizations, who define the objectives and strategies that our communications should support. You can devote the time that AI saves you to tasks that are beyond its capabilities, such as robust support of strategy.

• Understand that ChatGPT still needs a human editor.

Communications shops that use ChatGPT to generate copy will still need skilled people to edit and enhance the rudimentary material the software generates. An editor or other communications pro might also gather quotes, anecdotes, data or illustrations that AI cannot find on the internet. In other words, we provide human context.

Like any user of ChatGPT, professional communicators can’t assume that the copy the technology gives them is accurate. If we are to rely on AI, then we must become experts at fact-checking the text that it generates from internet sources. (To test its accuracy, try asking ChatGPT to write an article about you.)

• Address ambiguity.

The ability to make sense of ambiguities sets successful leaders apart. AI currently lacks the ability to deal with ambiguous information. To be ambiguous is to be human. After all, life is not always black and white — there are a lot of gray areas that require navigation.

People will always be able to offer something that AI cannot.

What does the future hold?

At the University of St. Thomas, many marketing and communications courses already incorporate ChatGPT. The educators believe the technology helps students focus on what to do with the generic output that ChatGPT gives them. They believe artificial intelligence can enhance the students’ work, rather than replace it.

For instance, running the classroom prompt for the final project of a course in marketing communication through ChatGPT generated a substantial outline of the tactical elements needed for a communication plan. But the outline the computer wrote lacked specifics about business objectives tied to the communications plan and how the tactics it suggested would help achieve those goals.

Students could use the technology to quickly create an outline of communications tactics, giving them more time to focus on strategy. This approach also gives the instructor higher expectations about the quality of the students’ final products.

Communications instructors at the Opus College of Business have also started revising their classroom prompts, especially for case studies, to require that students add their own personal reflections to written work. Such expectations are beyond the capability of current AI tools and deepen the students’ introspection and analysis.

Again, the critical element after accepting the fact students will use these tools stems from the ability of educators to generate better questions and deeper personal questioning, which Socrates emulated for us centuries ago.

The fact is: Tomorrow’s PR professionals (who are today’s college, high school and middle school students) are immersed in all things digital. They will quickly embrace ChatGPT and other AI-based software, whether educators encourage it or not.

Today’s practitioners must mentor younger practitioners on the art, craft and strategy of public relations. Public relations depends on human qualities such as curiosity, critical thinking and empathy. ChatGPT can save time, but the real thinking will still be the questions that PR practitioners ask themselves, their leaders and their clients.

Dr. Mike Porter, APR, Fellow PRSA, serves as a clinical professor at the University of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul, responsible for all graduate and undergraduate business communication programs and courses.

Stephen Dupont, APR, Fellow PRSA, is vice president of public relations at Pocket Hercules, a Minneapolis creative firm. Dupont also serves on the board of the Association of Professional Futurists and is editor of the association’s Compass magazine.

[Illustration credit: limitless vision]

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