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Head to Head: Will AI become the new junior PR?

In this series, Mumbrella invites the industry's senior PR professionals to share their opposing views on the industry's biggest issues. This week, Weber Shandwick's Brian Keenan goes head to head with CampaignLab's Ash Plaskett on whether or not artificial intelligence will take over the role of junior PRs.

With the growth in technology and changing pace of PR, will artificial intelligence (AI) soon replace the junior PR role? Weber Shandwick’s vice president of planning, Brian Keenan, says it is not a question of if but when with technology already doing tasks traditionally assigned to a junior PR professional. In contrast CampaignLab’s Ash Plaskett says technology makes completing tasks easier but it will never replace the junior PR role, and if it does, those young professionals should find a role where there potential is recognised.

Yes, argues, Brian Keenan, VP of planning, Weber Shandwick:

It’s not a question of will but when. In fact, the more immediately relevant question is: how many functions of junior PR staff has AI already supplanted? Depending on the agency you ask, the answer can be none or many.

Before diving into detail, a brief pause to say for the purposes of this article I’m combining artificial intelligence with related but entirely different technologies, primarily automation algorithms and services. And by junior I’m referring to those staff members who are in their first years of entering the work force at the most junior levels.

Keenan says it is not a question of if but when

With that out of the way, how are AI and automation pushing juniors out of the way? Simply, the technology already exists to perform many tasks historically assigned to junior staff in a faster, cheaper and more precise way than a human could. Some examples:

Scanning media and social for client and competitor mentions

Monitoring software can instantly capture mentions, send email alerts if required AND automatically update measurement dashboards.

Budget tracking and reconciliation

Time-entry and expense tracking systems compare themselves against original budgets in automated dashboards.

Product and sample send-outs

Third party fulfilment vendor packages and ships directly to recipients; feedback and ensuing coverage/content automatically tracked.

Building media lists

Provide a basic target audience or stakeholder profile, and an algorithm auto-generates a list based on journalist and relationship databases.

While the examples above are more “common” uses of automation, some agencies push even further:

· AI-written press releases, journalist emails and social copy

· AI-enabled consumer chatbots to replace basic social media community management

· Automating social feeds by AI-filtered and re-posted UGC (user-generated content)

You might have questions. How do you ensure quality control? What happens if something goes wrong? What will happen to the poor junior staff? I’ll close with some thoughts on those questions.

PR juniors will be fine – it’s us “senior” staff that need to worry. As automation replaces historically junior functions, younger staff will use their inherent tech-savvy to oversee the smooth operation of now-automated basic tasks – a historically mid-level function. They will couple this with training and upskilling as the agencies rapidly transition into a new structure.

Mid-level staff will still quality check and problem solve, but likely far less than today, freeing their time to take on more senior roles such as client and business strategy, but now with specialised expertise such as digital channel strategy or integrated agency operations.

Which leaves today’s senior PR staff. Traditionally media generalists and account leaders by training, senior staff will be forced to differentiate themselves against younger, cheaper, tech-savvy specialists.

Now, this change will take some time, if it happens at all. But I’ve laid it out in such frank, fait accompli terms because I think it will happen and sooner than some might realise. Market disruption will only take one or two agencies wholly embracing and refining automation to send everyone else scrambling to catch up.

No, argues, Ash Plaskett, head of media at CampaignLab:

Artificial intelligence is yet another powerful tool leading PR agencies and staff of all levels will use to produce the best work for their clients. Will it ever replace junior PR staff? Absolutely not. If it does, then those junior staff are best off somewhere that recognises their potential.

Ask any senior PR professional what agency life was like when they started their careers and they’ll tell you tales of faxing press releases, gluing articles into coverage books and countless hours packing hundreds of media kits. While the emergence of email, reporting software and cloud platforms may have made these practices redundant, the same can not be said for the role of the junior PR. Instead, it simply evolved.

Plaskett says new technologies make tasks easier but will not takeover junior PR roles

Much like the role of the junior PR, the entire industry has undergone massive change. PR today is about being creative, adaptive and innovative in the ways we communicate with the public and the tools we use to do so.

At CampaignLab we talk about ‘joining the conversation’, which involves analysing emerging trends and topics and turning them into talking points between brands and their customers. Our junior PRs are at the forefront of this, immersing themselves in the trends and insights to develop everything from truly relevant media pitches, video and social content, to laying the foundations for integrated creative campaigns.

Ultimately, new technologies have made specific tasks easier. However, with so many platforms to manage and new ones emerging everyday, we create new types of administrative jobs, which often sit with the more junior team members. While some might say this is how we earn our stripes in PR, I believe it’s reducing the time they could be spending adding real creative value.

That’s where I see AI playing a role.

With AI, some of this admin work could be reduced or automated. It could help analyse trends across social and traditional media, find you the right journalists for a pitch, pull together in-depth reports and generally support the requirements of junior PR staff.

As such, the junior PR role will change, leaving junior team members to spend more time on proactive activities, like actioning key trends and insights, building their relationships with journalists, understanding their clients and creating a positive relationship between brands and audiences.

So no, junior roles won’t disappear, but they will change for the better. They will be more focused on doing and less on admin. A junior PR role will be exactly that: a junior PR role, not an administrative assistant.

  • As told to Abigail Dawson. If you’re a senior PR professional who would like to take part in a future Head to Head, please email abigail@mumbrella.com.au
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