Why ChatGPT is not a golden egg for the PR industry

Peter Roberts, Corporate Reputation Practice managing director, urges the public relations industry to not rush into the to ChatGPT carnival for short term gains.

How do I introduce another article about ChatGPT and not have you stop reading?

Well, a smart Roman once said that Rome would be undone by its own folly and overindulgence. “The enemy is within the gates”, cried Cicero to his inattentive audience. Now, in harking back over 2000 years for my references, I appreciate that I’m reinforcing my luddite credentials when writing about the new bot on the block.

If you are one of those who stretched the holiday to the Australia Day ‘finishing line’ and missed the razzamatazz that greeted the arrival of Chat Generative Pre-trained Transformer, also known as ChatPGPT, let me explain. In summary, it’s a chatbot which demonstrates artificial intelligence (AI) at the level that’s exciting some of those with serious tech pedigree, including Elon Musk and Bill Gates.

The latter has been so enamoured that Microsoft has just made a multibillion dollar investment in the business behind the bot – OpenAI. This is a piece of technology that does some impressive tricks; in geekspeak it’s what’s known as a large language model, so words are its thing – song lyrics, film scripts, essays. It has unnerved education authorities to the extent that Queensland and New South Wales have banned the bot from state schools. They are not alone; New York public schools had already implemented a similar ban.

So, what’s with the Romans and what does ChatGPT’s arrival mean for PR? Well, I mention Cicero as we, as a profession, should firstly, be mindful of how the technology is used and secondly, how those uses are interpreted by others. Despite the whiff of resistance to the writing, I do believe ChatGPT can, in principle, be a useful development for communicators. However, its introduction needs to be managed very carefully by practitioners and their governing bodies alike. Otherwise, that enemy will be firmly ensconced within our gates.

Quite simply, irrespective of the financial attraction of having robots do the work of people, the profession cannot afford to fully embrace this technology, as here lies a path of diminishing returns.

ChatGPT and other AI applications do present an opportunity for the industry, but as a profession we need to be careful that this doesn’t only benefit the opportunists. I fully recognise that there are some aspects of our roles that could be automated such as the monitoring reports, but our adoption of the technology must be measured. The technocrats will talk in terms of technology’s inevitability and so we should steal a march on those other forces threatening the PR space, but ours is a people industry.

Lest we forget the P in PR. Rest assured, I’m not returning to my luddite tendencies and bashing bots out of fear, but making a different point, which is that the indiscriminate implementation of ChatGPT and everything that follows will shape they way we are perceived by others, including clients.

We can’t throw the baby out with the bot water, as it were. A move that puts technology before people will ensure that we produce tech-oriented outputs, which, unquestionably, will be tactical in nature. As I said, parts of the work we do – such as the monitoring – can be done by AI or other technology, but there’s a huge difference between monitoring, and analysing the contextual factors that underpin a client’s coverage, which is when we plainly need the people.

It’s the people; our people, who produce the strategic magic. The ability to read the seemingly incongruous, from political debate, consumer behaviours, Hollywood reference points and changing norms to produce compelling strategy. It’s strategy that will ensure the industry’s long-term future, not tactics.

The mid-term economic forecast for agencies and in-house teams will continue to be challenging, but the allure of technology and its apparent promises need to be weighed against the potential cost of losing people and what they can do.

Employment expert, Professor David Autor recently said that “AI will help [our] people use expertise better, meaning that we’ll specialise more.” The difficulty with that point is that specialisation takes time to accrue in the first place.

I urge us not to rush into the ChatGPT carnival, otherwise in returning to Cicero, “we may have our own criminality to contend with”.

Peter Roberts is the Managing Director of Corporate Reputation Practice. 


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