By Christine Richardson, Senior Communications Manager, City & Guilds Group
There’s been a lot of talk over the past year about how the workforce is changing. Whether it’s the rise of flexible working, what the New York Times called the ‘forward slash’ movement, or the much-publicised rise of the machines, the traditional way of working will become a thing of the past over the next few decades.
Some of these shifts can be explained by organisations adapting to meet changing consumer needs, or the increase in globalisation and the global employment market. But when it comes to robots and artificial intelligence, this has primarily been driven through technological progress and innovation. Technology is evolving and shifting the whole time, and quickly. While we can assume that many jobs may be replaced by machines (and indeed this is already happening in some industries), the true extent of the impact is harder to predict.
So perhaps it isn’t surprising that research from the City & Guilds Group shows that the majority of workers aren’t worried about the rise of the machines. Quite the opposite in fact, as 69% didn’t think that a machine could do their job. Likewise only 20% thought that artificial intelligence would have an impact on their job prospects in the next decade. Just 18% said the same for automation.
When we started to plan the Skills Confidence campaign last year, honestly we didn’t think people would be so positive. Granted, the research took place pre-Brexit, but I’d be surprised if the EU Referendum result had impacted on how people felt about the ‘rise of the machines’ and automation.
We frequently see news articles about how technology is changing the nature of work and replacing jobs. For example the Boston Consulting Group predicted that by 2025, a quarter of jobs would be replaced by smart software or robots. Deloitte and the University of Oxford found that robots could take 35% of jobs in 20 years. And the World Economic Forum believes we are currently going through a Fourth Industrial Revolution.
So, what does this mean for the PR industry?
Are we blind to the impact automation and artificial intelligence could have? The PR industry has undergone significant transformation over the past decade. When I first joined the industry, fabled long journalist lunches were already a thing of the past. Budget cuts have affected the way newspapers operate, increasing pressures on journalists. We’ve experienced the rise of social media, and subsequently the rise of a truly 24/7 media cycle. And we’ve seen the ongoing convergence with digital and content marketing, blurring the lines between what used to be quite different disciplines. The list goes on.
Change is hardly a rarity, so it would be short-sighted for PR professionals – and indeed the wider workforce – to be overly confident when it comes to the impact of automation and technology.
Some elements of PR could definitely become automated in the future. There is already software out there that can write up some simple news stories, so writing press releases and articles could become a thing of the past. The same can be said for social media posts. And we’re all familiar with technology that enables effective media monitoring, press release distribution, measurement and so on. How much more will this evolve and develop, and lessen the burden on PR professionals further?
But that’s not to say it’s all doom and gloom for our industry. Far from it in fact, because there are some qualities that simply cannot be replicated by a machine – qualities that are essential for all PR professionals.
Empathy and understanding of your readers are invaluable
For example, time and time again, I have heard journalists say that the main quality they value in us PR folk is empathy; the ability to understand their readers, and what they care about. Plus thinking about the role PR plays within businesses, being attuned to the world around you, and understanding emerging themes that are important to your audiences are skills that are integral to PR success. Could a machine do that? It’s doubtful.
At the heart of it, PR is about effective two-way communication, storytelling, relationship building and reputation management. Robots and machines might be able to help us monitor what’s going on in the world around us, but interpreting and analysing it, understanding what it means to an audience, and telling a captivating story is a uniquely human skill. And personally, I would never rely on a machine to build effective working relationships with journalists.
This year’s CIPR CPD cycle is now open; as we decide what to focus on in the coming year, thinking about what skills will make us future proof should be at the forefront of our minds. That means embracing and enhancing those all-important human skills, so that we’re ready to deal with whatever the industry – and technology – may throw at us.