We’re hearing a lot about how automation and machine learning can make our lives easier, as well as how they may threaten our livelihoods in the future. Even in PR, an occupation that’s known as hard to scale and relatively labor-intensive, there are new opportunities to automate large parts of what we do.
Entrepreneur and presidential contender Andrew Yang has used his 15 minutes to warn us of the hollowing-out of key industries like retail, customer service, and trucking as a result of AI. It’s not hard to envision the rows of self-checkouts in stores, corporate chatbots, and fleets of driverless trucks, because it’s already happening. As machine-learning algorithms grow more sophisticated, it’s natural to assume the worst.
Of course, the growth and speed of real artificial intelligence and its impact may well be overblown. If you ask AngelList CEO and cofounder Naval Ravikant, the hype about AI supplanting higher-order human thought and judgment is greatly exaggerated. In fact, Ravikant has interesting views about the dire predictions associated with AI, pointing out that older industries have always given way to newer ones that didn’t exist previously.
The impact of AI is debatable, but in one respect at least, Ravikant is on to something.
Compared to humans, neural networks underperform when it comes to recognizing symbols, grasping concepts, and understanding social context. Most experts doubt that neural net-powered artificial creativity can ever equal true human creativity. “Creativity is hardly possible without one’s capacity to think metaphorically, to coordinate proactively and to make predictions that go beyond simple extrapolation,” argues Anton Oleinik in a recently published paper in Big Data & Society. Ravikant, too, believes that automation, and eventually artificial intelligence, will usher in a new era of creativity and inspiration that sounds positively utopian.
So, why aren’t we lucky creative services types taking advantage of this? Those of us who work in public relations and marketing can benefit enormously from automation of rote tasks. The more we’re freed from repetitive work that is easily automated, the more time and mental space we have to do those things that – at least for the near future – only humans can. That means creative work, like generating innovative ideas for programs, and like — storytelling.
Shaping and telling stories has been around as long as humans have, but stories have a new resonance today. And the heart of public relations is in storytelling. To paraphrase Seth Godin, “Marketing PR isn’t about the stuff you sell; it’s about the stories you tell.”
Today, the connection forged by a great story is even more valuable than it has been in the past. For one thing, a new generation of consumers are demanding more than just a bigger smartphone or a new flavor of sparkling water. They want to know why a company exists and what its brand stands for. What does it value? How are its employees treated? Why does it matter? In an environment where media, information, and entertainment is atomized and highly customized, the power and ritual of a great story can engage us on an individual basis and maybe even bind us together. There are a few things that PR-driven storytelling does that will never be mechanized or automated.
One diehard fan is worth a thousand casual ones. I’m not talking about a social media upvote or a Facebook “like.” True fanship is a passion, and it can bond you, both to a brand and to fellow fans, like nothing else. Most importantly, fans like to share their passion with others. They become the most important advocates for a brand, cause, or candidate because they just can’t shut up. “People are hungry for a true human connection,” says Fanocracy author David Meerman Scott, with emphasis on “human.”
Divided government, privacy breaches, corporate scandals — amplified by the relentless news cycle, they erode public trust in institutions and brands. Millennials are now the largest demographic in the U.S., and they’re skeptical of traditional marketing and advertising. It adds up to a picture where brand stories shared by others – customers, stakeholders, partners, and journalists, – have greater resonance than those told by the companies themselves.
Everything’s available at our fingertips, so information isn’t always the point. Sure, we’re motivated to gather as much data as possible when it comes to products that require education, like software or probiotics. But inspiration is harder to come by. The right kind of storytelling can add the intangible factor of motivation, insight, or just plain fun.
Artificial intelligence can blow away humans when it comes to intellectual power, but it’s pretty poor at putting things into context, which we humans do unconsciously as we go about our lives and work. AI fails to grasp metaphors and archetypes, which are the fundamentals of storytelling, and it may never be able to connect two utterly disparate things to form something new — the very essence of creativity. That’s why it will always fall to humans to innovate in meaningful ways.
So, relax and don’t fear the robots for at least another hundred years. In a hopelessly crowded attention marketplace where the emphasis is on speed, efficiency, and productivity, we should free ourselves to do what we’re uniquely qualified to do.