The State Of AI In PR: Takeaways From Muck Rack’s 2024 Report

Obvious statement: 2023 was a breakout year for generative AI. Its impact was felt everywhere, and the PR business was no exception.

Midway through 2023, I wrote a blog post on why tech is important to PR, including a section on “the chatbot in the room,” aka generative AI. TL/DR version: AI is to PR now what social media was to PR in the early aughts. It will dramatically influence communications and provide new avenues for PR – but only for those professionals who choose to harness it.

In other words, when it comes to PR and generative AI, I’m skeptical about deep adoption across the industry. I anticipate a growing rift between PR practitioners who embrace generative AI and those who will choose to just keep doing things the way they’ve always done them.

So when media database Muck Rack released the “State of AI in PR January 2024,” I was curious to see if the data would support my theory.

About Muck Rack’s State of AI in PR January 2024 Report

Muck Rack’s latest State of AI in PR report was released earlier this month. It surveyed 1,001 PR professionals from November 2 through December 14. According to the report, “The goal of this survey is to deliver insights to the PR industry to help improve the workflow of public relations professionals, particularly around the rapidly expanding field of generative artificial intelligence.” Muck Rack says the survey was fielded primarily through email.

You can download the full State of AI in PR report on their website. (We are Muck Rack customers, but are not otherwise affiliated with the brand.)

In reviewing Muck Rack’s latest report, here are a few of my top takeaways:

The number of PR pros using generative AI doubled between March and November 2023

According to Muck Rack, the number of PR pros who said they use generative AI more than doubled from 28% in March to 64% in November. The claim that a majority of PR people surveyed are using generative AI only a year after ChatGPT’s release is a big claim. Based on my experience, both as an PR person and a member of the team at PR tool Propel PRM, Muck Rack customers tend to be a little more tech-savvy than average. Muck Rack does not disclose what portion of the 1,001 survey participants are Muck Rack customers, but I imagine it’s the majority. If true, the share of PR pros reporting that they use generative AI may be a bit inflated. I’m not convinced.

Still, if we look at the change in adoption between March and November, it may point to where we may be on Rogers Innovation Adoption Curve. With that kind of hockey stick growth, I believe we could be near the end of early adopters or into the early majority. That’s why I would not be surprised to see adoption of generative AI among PR pros increase slightly before leveling off in 2024.

Brands and agencies are misaligned on disclosure expectations

According to Muck Rack, “21% of agency PR pros say they never disclose their AI use to the clients. [While] only 6% of pros at brands think that’s the right move,” this calls to mind larger conversations around transparency and ethics. It’s similar to what we saw with Sports Illustrated, which admitted in December 2023 to using AI to generate author profiles without informing readers or crediting the AI.

Questions around disclosure — when, what and how much — are not new. We saw newsrooms grapple with rules for AI throughout 2023. Expect the conversation to continue in 2024 for anyone and everyone who touches communications. Which leads into the next stat about generative AI and governance.

72% of companies don’t have an AI policy in place

While 21% of respondents said their workplaces have an AI policy in place, 72% reported they don’t have one (though 22% noted plans to create one). Most (75%) also don’t offer AI training. I imagine these are factors further agitating the misalignment between agencies and brands. The report shows that (not surprisingly) larger companies tend to have an AI policy in place; it doesn’t report which types of teams – in-house or agency – are more likely to be subject to an AI policy.

AI policies can take various forms. As Mod Op CTO Tessa Burg shared with our team recently, 2024 is likely the year AI Councils will go from “cool” to necessary. I tend to agree, especially as agencies grapple with how to fulfill both client expectations and requirements. (You can learn more about Mod Op’s AI Council on the Mod Op Leader Generation podcast.)

67% are worried about overreliance on tools by the next generation in PR

When asked about the risks generative AI tools pose to the PR profession, 67% of survey respondents said “young/newer PR pros don’t learn the principles of the profession and rely too heavily on tools.” This was the most common response, surpassing concerns about lowered quality of conversations, clients/firms replacing content creators with AI, and audiences getting overwhelmed by content.

The report also has a section on “anti-AI PR pros.” Common reasons for not exploring generative AI included unpredictable outputs (45%), “I don’t think it will help my job” (39%), and concerns about privacy (39%). But the top reason was “other,” with responses covering a wide range of reasons. “Some say there’s an ethical reason to avoid AI,” the report says, and “others cite security concerns.”

One anti-AI PR pro, showcasing a narrow view of generative AI’s potential service for the PR industry, responded,”Why should anyone be bothered to read something I couldn’t be bothered to write?”

For me, these two sections of the report point to the potential rift between PR practitioners who will embrace generative AI and those who do not. The latter group, in my view, will miss opportunities to create awareness, build credibility, maintain relationships, and influence the public’s attitude toward their brand or organization — ultimately the main objectives of PR.

Crenshaw Communications Joins Digital Marketing Agency Mod Op

“What’s a Mod Op?”

That’s the question I heard from clients, friends, and PR colleagues when I told them that Crenshaw Communications, the PR firm I founded in 2009, had become part of Mod Op, a leading digital marketing and communications agency.

Mod Op is on an impressive growth trajectory and its profile is rising fast, but it’s better known in marketing circles than in the PR business. So, I’ve had to spell the name once or twice. I’ve explained that it hearkens to the Latin modus operandi, which means “way of operating” and implies a distinct approach and commitment to one’s work. In that regard, the name is fitting.

But beyond the name, here is what Crenshaw’s acquisition by Mod Op means to us, our clients, and our future.

An instant expansion of services

As our base of B2B technology clients has grown, they need more than the earned media, executive visibility, and thought leadership positioning our programs provide. While we’ve flirted with adding new offerings and have brought in consultants for specialized needs, there’s nothing like the real thing. As Mod Op, we offer market research, SEO, data insights, website development, creative services, and a whole lot more. This, while maintaining our identity as Mod Op’s strategic business unit for public relations.

A greater depth of talent

In the short time we’ve been part of Mod Op, we’ve been wowed by the depth of talent here. It’s going to take time to get our arms around it, but it’s exciting to be part of this larger team. I feel like I learn something new every day, whether it’s about an amazing client campaign, insights from the AI committee, or just chat about the latest new business pitch. Sharing office space with Mod Op Strategic Consulting (formerly dPrism, a digital transformation consultancy) and learning about their work, which is at the intersection of data, technology, and business, has been fascinating and thought-provoking. It all translates into greater mobility and opportunity for our team and a deeper offering for clients.

An entrepreneurial culture

We’re a small and nimble team, and we represent high-growth businesses that prize independent thinking and proactivity. As a result, we’re an entrepreneurial group. We value that spirit and feel it has been a driver of our growth and success. Although it’s a larger company at over 200 employees, Mod Op’s leadership and culture reflect very similar values.

An eye on the future

Artificial intelligence is changing everything. It’s the biggest inflection point for business transformation, and we have only  begun to realize its potential. Our clients are grappling with its impact and implications, and so are we. We all need top-quality analysis, insights and objective advice to do that. Mod Op’s leadership team was quick to recognize the transformational nature of AI for marketing and PR, and they’re committed to scaling our expertise and our offerings. The agency’s tagline is “Accelerating Growth Through Data, Human Creativity + AI.” They take this mantra seriously.

As a PR team that serves high-growth technology clients, so do we. Mod Op’s emphasis on AI-driven solutions as a complement to human creativity and inspiration resonated because it’s aligned with our thinking. But it invites us on a bigger and broader mission. My partner Chris Harihar has helped drive our growth, in part because he understands the power of technology, especially AI. Our team has developed a reputation as an innovator for that reason.

We joined Mod Op so we can take things to the next level. It’s going to be an exciting trip.

Don’t Fear The Robot: Why AI Is Good For PR And Marketing

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.

Turning customers into fans

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.”

Building trust

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.

Offering insight, not just info

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.

Connecting the dots

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.