A Deep Dive Q&A with Ryan Cohn
In today’s rapidly evolving digital landscape, artificial intelligence (AI) is profoundly reshaping the world of public relations. As this transition unfolds, PR professionals must understand AI’s impact on the industry and learn how to harness its potential to enhance campaign efficiency and effectiveness.
In an engaging Q&A, Sachs Media Partner & EVP Ryan Cohn delves into the complex relationship between PR and AI, sharing valuable insights on ethical concerns, AI’s role as a tool for the industry, and the critical importance of adaptability for strategic communications professionals. This conversation offers a roadmap for navigating the AI-driven future of public relations, beneficial for both seasoned practitioners and enterprising newcomers alike.
Q: How do you see AI impacting the future of the PR industry?
Ryan: Artificial intelligence stands to reshape strategic communications much as the calculator did for math-related fields. It’s arguably the most innovative shift we’ve seen in decades, reminiscent of the emergence of the PC. AI offers the potential for greater efficiency across almost everything we do – and, eventually, better outcomes, too. That said, our current challenge is in how we ensure accuracy. I’ve been exploring how the capabilities of today’s AI technology can improve client service and campaign operations without compromising facts and truth.
Q: What have you found so far, and what do you find AI most helpful with day-to-day?
Ryan: Right now I view AI tools, like ChatGPT, as co-pilots. There’s a growing trepidation within our industry, and across many professions, about the possibility that AI could replace jobs. However, when you think of AI more as a co-pilot – your assistant, not replacement – it can make our jobs more vibrant and engaging, eliminating our most repetitive, inefficient daily tasks in favor of bigger-picture strategic thinking.
I don’t turn – and I wouldn’t recommend that anyone turn – to ChatGPT and simply ask it to write a press release or blog article, and then call it a day. But it can help to start the creative process, getting your creative juices flowing. Sometimes the first step in writing is figuring out, “What are the first words I should write?” AI can help you overcome that roadblock. It helps to reshape the iterative process by going back and forth with AI as you improve your work product. You provide feedback, guide it through the process, and offer strategic insights to navigate from point A to Z. And then, in the end, you put your own human touch on it to reach a finished product.
Q: Can you dive deeper into how you envision AI shaping how PR professionals analyze and interpret data?
Ryan: AI helps us analyze data quickly, expediting our process of making informed decisions and recommendations. It’s part of a gradual evolution in our profession, away from repetitive manual tasks and toward higher-level thinking and data-driven counsel. At our firm, it started several years ago with the creation of custom digital dashboards for many clients that integrated a variety of data sources – such as engagement levels, click-through rates, visitors, and other metrics – to measure and visualize campaign performance in real-time. Rather than spending hours compiling data, we could instantly look at campaign insights and spot what’s most important, then pivot and optimize campaign elements to improve outcomes.
Going forward, AI takes this to another level, helping us identify nuggets of truth hidden within troves of data, looking past the noise to discover what matters the most. That may include helping us figure out how to visualize complex data or dig through and find really useful pieces of information that we can then use to improve strategies and tactics. Beyond analyzing and interpreting data, AI is going to transform other aspects of our work, from writing to content development to media pitching.
Q: That seems to go hand in hand with identifying your key target audiences as well.
Ryan: Absolutely. Using AI, especially ChatGPT, we’re able to see the bigger picture and fine-tune details related to use cases, personas, and customer journeys. While we might start with limited data, AI helps with determining what our target audience values and how that aligns with how our clients may serve them, ensuring that messaging is relevant and likely to motivate them toward a desired action. Instead of labor-intensive brainstorming sessions, AI can significantly expedite the process of developing persona or use cases. ChatGPT may not build a perfect persona initially, but with continued refinement and prompting, it can help fill gaps and establish a richer narrative.
Q: Do you have any concerns with AI in the industry? What are some potential challenges you foresee with the integration of AI and PR?
Ryan: I see two primary concerns. First, ChatGPT, despite being one of the most accurate and advanced AI chatbots available, has a major limitation: Its training data (which basically includes the entirety of the public-facing internet) only runs through mid-2021. This means it’s unaware of recent events, late-2021 through today, which creates a significant challenge for PR practitioners whose work is anchored in current events. OpenAI is working on solutions, like browser extensions to provide newer information, but it’s not there yet. Alternatively, Bard, which is Google’s AI chatbot, has access to current data, but its capabilities are not as robust as ChatGPT.
My second – and larger – concern is the tendency for today’s AI tools to “hallucinate” data, meaning it may produce fake facts or statistics when prompted for specific details, or false references to support assertions. This isn’t intentional; it’s trying to identify patterns in vast datasets, which tends to work very well for more abstract concepts but less so when identifying specific statistics, academic research, or legal citations. It’s output may look accurate, but when you search the internet to find the actual source, it does not exist. That’s why, as of now, I’d advise against relying solely on AI for critical research or precise statistics.
You also need to double-check all of its outputs, finding sources and confirming accuracy. An interesting example is a New York lawyer who used ChatGPT to draft case briefs. The AI cited non-existent laws and data, and the lawyer neglected to verify its accuracy, which landed him in trouble with the court. The key takeaway is to verify everything that AI helps you produce. Remember that it’s your co-pilot, not your replacement.
Q: Do you believe most professionals using ChatGPT in the industry are aware of this, or do you think ChatGPT is causing a lot of false information to be circulated?
Ryan: It’s an interesting question. For content creators relying on ChatGPT for research, any misinformation accepted as truth would get integrated into the public knowledge domain. This could, in theory, lead to a cascade effect where future AI systems are trained on that inaccurate information, perpetuating a cycle of inaccuracy. It’s worth mentioning that AI systems don’t use a single source; they leverage thousands of sources to generate answers, discounting or weighing as it deems appropriate – perhaps drawing 0.1% from one source, 1.05% from another, and 0.25% from a third, and so on. It’s a black box, an intricate process that isn’t fully understood by most users. While it presents challenges, I’m optimistic, as they’re making continuously advancements to fix issues and improve the quality of outputs.
Q: Are there any ethical considerations that PR practitioners should be aware of when using AI?
Ryan: Trust but verify everything. Don’t blindly accept AI-generated content. Master ‘prompt engineering’, which involves giving AI tools clear context and instructions, and fine-tuning queries, to get desired results. They are only as good as the information you feed them. It’s like nutrition or diet: Put garbage in, get garbage out. For instance, I often begin prompts with role definitions, such as “You are a PR practitioner” or “You are the communications director at a Fortune 500 health care company” or “You are the producer of Emmy Award-winning TV commercials.” It guides the AI to produce content with the appropriate voice, tone, and style.
Q: How can PR professionals equip themselves for the forthcoming AI-dominated landscape in the industry? Moreover, do you foresee a shift toward a ‘prompt engineering’ focus becoming prevalent in most roles?
Ryan: PR practitioners should transition away from a tactic-specific approach to a more overarching ‘producer’ role. This means looking at all moving parts, connecting the dots, and running the show – especially important as automation will render many repetitive tasks obsolete. The cornerstone of PR, however, is trust rooted in relationships. AI can’t replicate the genuine trust and rapport we build, and its value will only increase. Trust will continue to grow more important amid the rise of AI-generated deep fakes and increased skepticism about content authenticity. So while mastering tools like AI is essential, safeguarding and nurturing authenticity and trust will always be at the core of our profession.
Q: Do you perceive the current skepticism around AI as merely a transitional phase? How do you envision this skepticism evolving as AI integration becomes the new norm in our industry?
Ryan: There’s often some skepticism with any new technology. Remember the initial fears about e-commerce, which many believed would lead to the end of retail? Similarly, AI is a helpful tool to enhance our work, not replace most professionals. However, those adept at AI may replace those who refuse to evolve their skills. PR professionals must embrace AI and understand its strengths, limitations, and potential pitfalls. We’re only at the beginning of this transformative period, so get familiar with AI and you’ll be better prepared to foresee and respond to the next round of breakthroughs. A thriving approach to PR today might be obsolete tomorrow, so we are constantly looking to the future to create the most visionary, agile agency – and I’m confident we’re heading in that direction.