As generative AI makes rapid advances, it is hard to avoid questions about how these new technologies will reshape the public relations industry. Almost two-thirds of the 400+ comms executives polled by the landmark AI in Comms study expect the introduction of tools such as ChatGPT and Bard to bring significant change to the industry by 2025. And yet, 86% of respondents to the global survey remain positive about advances in generative AI, with those aged 35-44 scoring especially high (91%).

To discuss these findings, Sandpiper and PRovoke Media convened a virtual discussion that attracted more than 350 participants from around the world. The panellists were:
Carolyn Esser, chief corporate affairs officer at Darktrace, an AI led cybersecurity firm
Mark Johnson, associate director at Sandpiper
Prashant Saxena, head of insights, Isentia Asia
Puneet Singh, communications director for Asia-Pacific and Japan at Cisco.

Sandpiper COO Kelly Johnston presented the survey findings, and PRovoke Media's Arun Sudhaman moderated the discussion.

The survey report can be downloaded here, while further analysis of findings can be found here. The video from this discussion can be viewed here

Effective understanding is key to AI integration

Johnston pointed out that positivity about AI is highest in the Middle East, Africa and Asia-Pacific. "In these regions, our industries are less than one-third worried that advances in AI will reduce their job roles in the future.” But almost double the number of people under 35 are worried about AI replacing their roles in the future compared with just 21% of those over the age of 45. And 65% expect significant industry change by 2025. 

However, Johnston cautioned that leaders may not yet know how to handle a transformative tool. According to 43% of global respondents, leaders are integrating generative AI into their offerings and ways of working without fully thinking through the potential implications and consequences.

For example, Asia-Pacific respondents rated ‘industry leaders’ strong understanding of AI’ and ‘industry leaders’ understanding of generative AI’ at 25% and 24% respectively. Europe and the UK were second lowest at 41% and 43% respectively.

Bridging knowledge gaps is critical 

Esser believes that knowledge gaps are costing the communications industry when it comes to maximising the opportunities that AI can provide. Almost half of respondents (49%) do not believe their company is investing enough to educate employees about AI and its value. 61% think their employer should allocate more resources into integrating AI technologies into standard practices.

However, generative AI is also already being used by many for the more creative functions of communications: 42% to help generate creative ideas; 38% for social media content generation; 34% to apply the technology to writing articles.

“Seven out of 10 would like more training and while over half have actually participated in at least some form of training around AI, this has been ad hoc at best, but just 18% are trained on responsible use of generative AI tools, 17% on managing deep fakes, and 10% on identifying deep fake content,” summarised Esser.

Accordingly, the study identified four key areas of training to understand the landscape and its complexity and impact. 

  1. AI Basics: A ‘101’ to understand the long history of AI, its essential concepts and applications.

  2. AI Use Cases: Understand the role (generative) AI can play in day-to-day tasks such as content writing, creative concepting, media monitoring, and crisis management.

  3. Tools & Prompting: Learn to use the right tools for the right task and how to get the best out of them through effective prompt engineering.

  4. AI Ethics: Understand what responsible AI usage means and its key principles and practices.

A more basic misunderstanding of the speed at which AI is travelling also needs to be bridged, said Saxena, who believes that any optimism should be tempered with realism. "I think [respondents] are underestimating the full impact of generative AI right now," he said.

"A lot of this disruption is going to cut through different industries, different tasks, roles, and more."

“So I think we are underestimating the impact of generative AI across industries, including our industry, and one that we are overestimating (over) three years.”

Singh added to that sentiment, noting that PR is often listed as amongst the top five jobs being impacted by ChatGPT and generative AI. "The way they have quantified the impact is by saying they are looking at the exposure of a job to GPT or GPT-powered technologies,” explained Singh, pointing out that reducing the time taken to do a particular task by more than 50% or even 67% is highly beneficial.

"Once all of this starts to come to bear...this is not three years away," said Singh. "This is happening as we speak."

AI is already operational in communications workstreams

Despite the above findings, a sizable majority (61%) of communicators are already using generative AI tools in their day-to-day work, with one in five (21%) using them frequently. Globally, nearly half (47%) of those using AI technology are using it to speed up and improve desktop research, while a further 39% are using the technology to help analyse data.

“The feelings of positivity also extend to agency-client relationships. Most believe that AI technologies can positively enhance this and enable agencies to be more efficient. Additionally, there is a view that AI can help level the playing field between agencies of different sizes, geographies, skill sets, and language capabilities among other factors,” said Johnston.

Indeed, Esser thinks that people are potentially overestimating the impact on jobs. "I think it's unnecessary fear mongering that our jobs are going to be taken away," she said. "I think the advisory capability, the ability to run campaigns, these tools are brilliant to create more content, better content, augment all of that communications capability. I don't think that my CEO is going to take advice from an AI generated chatbot just yet."

Accordingly, agency and in-house teams planning to invest in AI technologies may well benefit, particularly when it comes to attracting talent — 70% of respondents would like more training around AI technologies.

Meanwhile, six out of 10 believe that there is likely to be a growing body of work around AI generated reputations, added Johnston.

In terms of the client-agency relationship, Sandpiper's Johnson thinks much more conversation between both parties is required. "There will be that shift, but I think it'll just mean what's going to be needed moving forward is a discussion between both agency and client about what currently is expected around delivery."

Johnson further believes that AI technologies could potentially remove some of the pain points in the relationship, freeing up agencies to deliver better campaigns and create more impact. But that will require a rethink of the agency models, particularly when they are commoditised in service of client demands. 

"The success of communication streams has always hinged on the partnership between agency and in house," added Singh, agreeing that automation could help free up client budgets. "But that discussion can only happen if you see your agency as a partner, not as 'we pay you money and you've got to do this for us'."

Looking ahead, in six months nearly nine out of ten (89%) predict that AI tools will be used weekly, with more than a quarter (27%) expecting to use these daily. By 2024, almost everyone (92%) thinks AI technologies will be a regular part of their toolkit while 43% believe they will be using these daily.

However, respondents in North America (73%) are least likely to have participated in any form of AI training, a reflection of a trend reported earlier in this report where people in this region were noted to feel the least positive towards AI.

Risks growing as fast as AI expansion

“The pace of change is going to be a lot quicker than people realise,” explained Johnson. “Nine out of 10 communicators believe that they will be using AI tools at least weekly but as use of these tools continues to grow, most feel that soft skills such as leadership abilities, strategic advisory, creative thinking, and relationship building will become fundamental.

"I think the fine line that needs to be balanced is how does society gain from the extraordinary advances in terms of productivity, and [the] struggle to recruit the talented people we need into the workforce because there simply aren't enough of them," added Esser, who also noted that "the regulatory environment just doesn't have the capabilities to respond to all of this in the real time in which this is advancing."

“The industry is largely unprepared," he added. "Only 11% of companies within in-house or agency currently have policies or guidelines in place for using AI, generative AI tools and their communications."

In addition, three quarters also believe that this will become an important area of focus in procurement processes. 79% overall believe that the use of AI tools in communications work should be disclosed in the future in some way, with the largest group believing that this should really only apply for sourcing third party data.

However, one of the findings revealed that 85% are concerned about increasing legal and ethical risks surrounding generative AI. This is highest in Asia-Pacific and North America and a little lower in Europe, the Middle East and North Africa.

Data ownership emerges as a key concern. Two thirds believe advances in AI pose data ownership risks for the industry, with this sentiment being the strongest in Asia-Pacific. Yet, opinions are split. Perhaps surprisingly, 36% believe that users should retain ownership while 23% feel it should be jointly shared.

The findings underline how important it is for the industry to learn quickly, added Johnson. “How quickly we can then get up to speed and how quickly we can be ready, especially as leaders wanting to adopt and help junior staff… we are going to have to go on a very quick learning journey in order to understand this transformation."