PR identity crisis because of AI? – The road to augmented communications

If you look more closely, the current debate on the expected implications of AI tools on communications management – which has recently intensified due to the rapid spread of chatbots based on large language models – essentially revolves around the question of what public relations and corporate communications are actually all about. Talk of “revolutions,” as recently put forward by Bernhard Fischer-Appelt, along with the potential for 30 to 40 percent increases in productivity, or “identity crises in PR and communications,” as suggested by Jan Hiesserich from Palantir, centers on the aspect of automated content generation. Points of view oscillate between fears of communication management self-destructing on the path to using AI and the promise of the technology offering greater freedom for human creativity by taking over time-consuming routine tasks.

The course of the debate is interesting for two reasons. First, the issue of what the lasting impact of such tools will be on the acceptance of content is rarely discussed and, when it is, the focus is usually on fakery and misuse. Second, there appears to be tacit agreement that communications management primarily consists of conveying content to target groups successfully – with scalability along the lines of “the more the better.” But both of these viewpoints are too short-sighted.

You don’t have to be familiar with the fate of Cyrano de Bergerac to recognize that the identity of a message’s sender is crucial to its acceptance. The oversized nose of  AI – to stick with the metaphor – can only be hidden at the cost of a lack of transparency. No businesses can expose themselves to this risk, and regulation of automated content and its clear labeling as such is already in the pipeline. There’s a good reason for this, too, if you look for example at the waning interest in mainstream news. Only 52 percent of people surveyed in Germany are still interested in current affairs, and only 43 percent trust what they consume. Communicating AI-generated content in a world of increasing news avoidance risks jeopardizing the trust that companies have built up over the years, without even taking into account the now widely recognized ability of AI models to make mistakes and their propensity for “fast thinking,” – automatic, intuitive, subjective – as Daniel Kahnemann would put it.

So what is the purpose of communication management, beyond producing and disseminating content? It’s quite clear that language and imagery in all their various communicative and presentational guises are extremely important in a society with media discourse. The work of communication, as the communication scientists Timothy Kuhn, Karen Ashcraft, and Francois Cooren compellingly argued with reference to affect theories in their 2017 book, also involves establishing and maintaining personal relationships both within and outside of a business or organization. However, this empathetic and physical dimension of communication remains by definition the domain of living, breathing beings with authentic emotions.

AI doesn’t mean the end of communications management, and neither will it lead to any changes in the strategic success factors in this field. Nevertheless, AI tools will play an increasingly important role in promptly painting pictures of complex situations, developing ideas under pressure, and standardizing interactions with target groups. It is already capable of enhancing even high-performance communication functions. However, in such optimized, augmented communications, communicators remain, as Sigmund Freud put it, “a sort of prosthesis-god.” “Truly great when equipped with all his accessory organs but not forming a single whole with him and occasionally giving him trouble.”

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