Leveraging AI and Digital Tools in Public Relations, by Ayeni Adekunle

On Thursday, March 4, 2021, I facilitated a workshop organised by Africa Communications Week and CIPR International. The other speaker was Kerry Sheehan, who is the chair AI in PR panel at the CIPR.

What was expected of me? To provide some insight and answer some questions on how digital tools have helped the work we do at BHM.

Why BHM? We’ve grown revenue an average of 250% year-on-year over the past five years, using digital tech to change how we work (with clients, from home, and with media) and introducing Plaqad.com, which is pioneering an exciting collaboration, search, payment and analytics system on the continent.

By adopting an ERP (we started with SAP and now using a combination of providers until we build and deploy ours), we’re hoping to reduce man-hours by up to 25% while saving up 35% on office and related expenses by the end of 2022.

Also, by switching to 100% remote work since March 2020, we’ve cut costs by around 15%, improved staff welfare (they no longer have to sit in Lagos traffic, for example), and improved our people’s abilities to use digital tools significantly. We’re doing more with Notion, Dropbox, Google Docs, and WhatsApp, discovering aspects of Teams and Zoom we didn’t believe existed, and innovating around all the things we would have had to do physically pre-WFH.

With Plaqad, we hope to improve not just for ourselves but also for every user, collaboration, success rates, turnaround time, analytics, earned and paid media automation, influencer activities, reporting, agency vendor management, and compensation process. For example, the Plaqad algorithm is able to detect when a task is completed and credits the vendor automatically from funds already pre-approved from users’ wallet. This model will significantly benefit an industry where clients are reluctant to pay upfront for fear of poor execution, and agencies and vendors are tired of waiting 30 to 60 days after completing a job to get paid.

Different organisations will have different approaches, depending on their size, industry, needs, and future plans. But below, I’ve put down some of my thoughts, based on our experience, in six quick points.

1. Befriend dashboards

What do you want to do? What do you want to know? A lot of the answers we’re looking for are hidden inside dashboards. From your website to G-Suites, Twitter and Instagram, there are loads of insights waiting for you to talk to them. Of course, some will be more reliable than others. For example, your website dashboard, or that of your google studio, should prove more credible than estimated insights from FB or IG. But if you look carefully and consider the right inference, you’d find that it wouldn’t be bad to befriend every dashboard after all.

2. Measure what matters

Now, you can have access to all the dashboards in the world; if you’re not deliberate about your algorithms and indices, then you’re setting up for failure. Not every information on an external dashboard would prove useful if you’re clear about what matters. And if it’s owned media or other assets, you could easily customise your dashboard to reflect what you want to observe and analyse. This decision making helps determine which content and communities are growing and why; what tools to invest in, the sentiments behind stakeholder actions, and so on. It also helps you decide what to stop, start, or automate.

3. Collect data

What you’re able to measure, what your dashboard can collate and present depends on what data has come in. So, let’s all take a look at Google Analytics and understand why they’re able to reveal so much about, say, an individual website visit. To help our employees, clients, communities, and peers better, we must have the right skillset and tools to collect the correct data. When we hear AI or data-driven communications, it’s easy to think it has to be some high-level activity that might even require some serious capital investment, Wrong. A simple survey of everyone attending a meeting or workshop can provide the kind of insights that could help plan future events better. And it can be codified in such a way that others from around the world can utilise. It works for everything, whether you’re using the analytics tool on Plaqad, tracking recipient activity on Mailchimp, or trying to determine how to better support WFH employees — or even trying to create or distribute content. By all means, collect data. But don’t trick people. Be upfront about what you seek to collect and why. And make sure to store and use data ethically and responsibly. I can’t overemphasise that.

4. Analyse (x100)

Life runs on decisions that inform our personal lives, businesses, governments and others. You can break down each day into blocks of yeses and nos. And that’s what managers, advisers, and consultants get paid to do. To advise or make decisions based on some understanding of the matter. The beauty of all the digital tools we’re embracing is that it helps us isolate or aggregate information in order to interrogate and determine the most suitable course of action. AI will let most even perform these tasks on our behalf. Just like humans, tools and algorithms are often biased. So, it’s up to us to be upfront about how we balance methods and calibrate metrics.

5. Integrate

To help with the potential bias above, it helps to feed credible data from multiple, diverse sources, all integrated into a single pool. The best dashboards are those that enable this. And the best way really to enjoy the value that artificial intelligence brings, as we seek to accelerate ‘smart’ comms, is to make sure we’re not only comparing and contrasting; but collapsing into a single funnel that reduces the potential for errors of bias or intelligence. If we combine this with measuring what matters, when it matters, we reduce the possibility of looking back in a few years only to realise we took a wrong turn. In integrating AI into our work, it is also important to understand the limitations, vulnerabilities, and risks.

6. Invest

There are many free tools, like Siri, Google Studios, Google Analytics, the Insights from business accounts in Instagram and FB, even Youtube and Mailchimp and Twitter. WordPress comes with a fantastic CMS and dashboard, with thousands of compatible plugins. And if you’re working with customised CMS or ERPs, you’ll see so much that’s possible. But we need to invest in training our people, in building or subscribing to the right systems, and in the time we spend understanding and exploring digital technology. Almost everything we do is now powered by some form of today’s tech. Tomorrow’s around the corner, and there’s no going back. Gives us an opportunity like no generation has had, to understand what’s happening, so we can provide the right counsel, communicate excellently, and future proof for ourselves and our partners.

At BHM, we’ve been preparing ourselves for a time when AI would take over most, if not all, of what we do. From hiring and managing our staff to creating, approving, and distributing content. Everything from listening to reporting, issues management, planning, buying, blogging, and media relations. While there’s already some progress in America and Europe, through agency networks, academic institutions, and organisations like CIPR and PRCA, not much has changed in Africa. But we don’t have to wait until it’s too late. Plaqad, which launched last November, is an example of how innovation can remove some repetitive aspects of our work that we can automate. But it’s still a long journey ahead.

As with all journeys, there’ll be risks of accidents, failures, or even attacks. We must be aware of the ethical considerations regarding AI and listen to the voice of those advocating caution. As we’ve seen from the discussions around social media, the world is at its most vulnerable. The job of public relations is to help people, governments, and organisations be and do better, and it would be nice if we used all the tools in the world to achieve that while avoiding so-called ‘collateral damage’.

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