THE BLOG
10/19/2015 04:50 pm ET Updated Oct 17, 2016

Warning: This Piece Was Written By A Computer (Well, Not Really)

Technology-fueled unemployment has generated a flurry of attention in recent months, even finding its way onto the Presidential campaign trail. One 2013 study found that nearly half of U.S. workers are vulnerable to displacement by automation. Observers worry that, if nothing is done, we might face a future of fewer jobs, higher unemployment and declining income.

Public relations and other marketing disciplines have not been immune to technological innovation. On the contrary, recent technological advances in these spaces have been breathtaking. We have entered an era of stories that write themselves and content that finds its own audiences. So will professionals in these disciplines soon go the way of the dodo bird? A look at two recent technology products suggests not.

Founded in 2010, Narrative Science has a technology called Quill that can write articles by extracting meaning from large amounts of structured data. "Quill is being used everywhere," Chief Scientist Kris Hammond said in an interview. "From wealth management desks to grocery store chains that need to communicate waste to department heads to insurance companies that are tracking the performance of their sales teams." In the financial services industry in particular, Quill can "take a report that literally takes days or weeks for an analyst to craft and generate it in under a second."

So will Quill soon be writing press releases, opinion pieces, white papers and annual reports? Apparently not. As Hammond told us, Quill will help PR firms not so much by creating content for client to use, but by helping firms better track the impact of client work. He cited products like Quill Engage, which reports on data from Google Analytics to provide "a weekly view of how a client's site is performing," and Quill Connect, which does something similar using Twitter data. "People have access to different sources of data as well and goals, strategies and plans that might be difficult to express at the data level.  So people at PR firms will still be generating this kind of content, with Quill working beside them to help evaluate and understand the impact that this content has in the world."

Something similar seems to hold true as regards to media planning. Tel-Aviv-NYC-based content marketing firm Keywee has a technology that helps publishers find targeted audiences by analyzing the content of stories and matching it up with social media profiles Yet if you believe Yaniv Makover, the firm's CEO, conventional media planning in its entirety will not soon fall prone to automation. Real, live humans will still need to apply their intelligence to define target audiences. "Where things are changing a bit is that rather than just focusing on publications and sites, we feel it is also important to think about reaching audiences by developing targeted content for specific platforms like Facebook and Twitter. And that is where solutions like keywee come into play."

Public relations executives we consulted primarily regard automation as an opportunity rather than as a threat to their businesses or their jobs. Jesse Dienstag, Executive Director and Head of Planning at Golin touts technological solutions as a boon to strategic planning; they prove particularly useful, he thinks, in helping marketers get in closer touch to consumer needs and desires. "There's some pretty amazing stuff going on. Technology companies and platforms out there that are helping us monitor, identify, aggregate, engage, and even synthesize and summarize conversations and data. As a strategist, I have new ways to talk and listen to people like never before. It's an amazing time to be in this business."

As Dienstag notes, human beings must still make sense of and work with all the data. Computers can't, and likely soon won't, do things like understand context, interpret words, evaluate survey responses, mystery shop, ask follow-up questions, read body language, or perform ethnographies. "By my definition, 'insights, trends, and human truths' come from smart people working very hard and taking in all a lot of inputs from a variety of sources." 

Over the longer term, as companies begin to deploy computers like IBM's Watson that can teach themselves and learn on their own, technology might pose more of a threat. Chris Graves, Chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide observes that "more and more writing" might one day be created that is "better and better with no need for humans." But even then, human public relations professionals will still matter. "If we define the core competence of public relations not as writing but as earning influence, humans will always have a central role," since influence rests on building trusted relationships with other humans. Graves concludes that public relations will probably see a dynamic that has played out in other industries: automation of lower value work, accompanied by migration to "strategic and creative jobs that are harder to replace."
If you work in marketing communications, take heart: You probably won't need to switch to an industry like nursing, healthcare or management consulting, which are less vulnerable to automation. As powerful and as useful as computers are, stories are remarkably difficult to create and market, and client strategies are difficult to conceive.

For better or for worse, articles like this one will still be written by human beings for some time to come.

This article is a part of a series exploring communications and media trends in honor of the second annual Communications Week, a week-long series of events celebrating the communications industry, held from October 19-23, 2015. Follow @CommsWeekNY.

Post by Matt Shaw, the SVP/Director of Communications at PR Council. You can reach him at @PRCouncil on Twitter.