Get to your summer comms priorities before AI does

Big issues loom for communicators, including the state of the profession. Buckle up.

Jim Ylisela is co-owner and Senior Partner at Ragan Consulting Group. Four months ago, he was feeling pretty smug about besting ChatGPT in an editing contest. Now he’s not so sure.

It used to be, not so long ago, that summer brought a bit of relief to those who work in communications. The annual meeting was in the rear-view mirror, the pace of work slowed and the chiefs took off for the Hamptons. Time to clean your desk(top), file away past projects and plan for the second wave after Labor Day.

OK, all together now: Fuggetaboutit! (And when you say it, try to sound more like the late, great James Caan than his co-star Hugh Grant in Mickey Blue Eyes.) Try again: Fuggetaboutit!

If you work in communications, this summer is hardly the time to sit on your, well, assets. Everything is changing, from the state of your company culture to the state of the union. And if prickly social and workplace issues aren’t enough to get your blood pumping, consider the one truly existential threat to your profession: Artificial Intelligence.

Fastest growing app

The use of AI is exploding, and communicators have reason for concern. ChatGPT is the fastest growing app of all time, taking all of two months to reach 100 million users (compared with nine months for TikTok). It’s no surprise that communicators may be wondering whether AI will take over their writing duties and eventually hand them their pink slips.

But before we go all “Hal 9000,” or Terminator 3 here, consider that no one is quite sure yet how AI can best be used and how it should be regulated, if at all. Think about technology’s Wild West, otherwise known as the World Wide Web in the 1990s. Anything’s possible, so it’s up to us to figure it out.

Communicators are very good at addition but not so hot at subtraction. The tasks pile up, however mundane, but very little comes off our plates. Some think this is the perfect job for AI.

In an ideal world, the robots would do all the boring stuff so we can focus on creative thinking and the kind of storytelling only humans can do.

It’s been all of four months since I challenged ChatGPT to an editing contest. AI isn’t creative enough — at least not yet — to turn lousy content into sparkling prose. But the sad fact is that much of what it produces is deemed “good enough” by many organizations, whose standards may be a bit lower than the communicators they hire to uphold them.

Take advantage of AI

Communicators must learn how to use AI to their advantage, not keep it from their door. (It’s already inside.) Only 16% of communications leaders said they are “extremely knowledgeable” about AI applications for comms, according to an April survey by WE Communications and the USC Annenberg Center for Public Relations.

“Agile companies will take advantage of AI and boost their position. Companies less so will perish,” Nvidia Corp. Co-founder and Chief Executive Officer Jensen Huang told graduating students at the National Taiwan University in Taipei. “While some worry that AI may take their jobs, someone who’s expert with AI will.”

So, let’s get busy.

We shouldn’t just focus on everything AI can do, but what it can’t do, data scientist Brandeis Marshall writes in Medium.

“AI can’t provide contextual awareness, resolve conflicts or think critically,” she writes. “If you enter a career or perform skills that require some blend of these three functions, then you’ll have a livelihood-making path.”

That sounds like a pretty good approach for communicators, given the difficult issues in front of them. Here are just three challenges:

1. Hybrid goes fulltime. Quiet quitting may have lessened, but no one wants to come into the office five days a week if they don’t have to. How do we communicate with everyone equally, even when people are working in different environments under different circumstances?

Our recent communications audits show that it’s the people on the job, not the people doing the job at home, who are missing out. They may be harder to reach through conventional means. Many have critical jobs that demand their physical presence but provide little time. Some are bitter about missing out on what they see as a perk. This is a communications problem that requires empathy, and a great deal of critical thinking.

2. The volatile economy. Bank failures and record bank profits. High interest rates for borrowers, but also for people buying certificates of deposit and opening savings accounts. There’s the much-predicted recession that never seems to get here. Profits are back to pre-COVID levels, but budgets are tight.

Our audits find that employees don’t understand the economics of their own organizations, let alone how their businesses are affected by the overall economy. That story requires the kind of context only a good communicator can provide.

3. Tough topics. All those issues we aren’t supposed to talk about at work — politics, religion and sex­, to name a few — have taken center stage in recent years. Be prepared for all three to inspire strong voices inside your organization.

Employees, customers and others expect organizations to have a point of view on the social issues of the day, and they expect their own views to be heard, too. There’s a lot to navigate here, and that requires creative thinking and conflict resolution.

Context, conflict and critical thinking, maybe with a splash of creativity to make it appealing for your audiences. Sounds like a good gig for a human communicator.

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