By Imad Lahad
There is no hiding from the fact that artificial intelligence (AI) is gradually changing our world, one industry at a time. Perhaps in no greater way than in government communications. Earlier this year in Dubai, we witnessed a moment that clearly captured this sentiment.
International Monetary Fund (IMF) chief Christine Lagarde was being interviewed at the 2019 World Government Summit by CNN’s voluble business broadcaster Richard Quest. The two industry heavyweights were involved in a lively back-and-forth over the prevailing issues facing the world of politics and economics today. And then, the brash Briton raised the issue of AI. “Will AI replace or alter even your role as the head of the IMF?”, Quest asked pointedly, to which Lagarde simply said: “Yes, of course.”
But Lagarde then asked the audience: “Who thinks they will be replaced or have their job adjusted by AI in the next five years?”. Roughly half of the audience raised their hands, amid nervous laughter. It was a moment that revealed the paradoxical perception of how this oncoming AI tsunami will irrevocably adjust our lives; we know it’s coming but we’re still not sure how to brace for its impact.
Lagarde then raised her hand, too, as did Quest. And there, frozen in time, was a snapshot of a humanity who feels it will either be replaced by, or work alongside robots in the not-too-distant future. Here was the leader of the IMF – an organization responsible for advising governments across the world on how to prioritize economic growth and parity as their priority – admitting that her role will be adjusted by human-created technologies.
The parallels with the communications industry are striking, especially in the government client-servicing sector. Our roles as media, PR and communications professionals advising government, much like the IMF, will mutate and transform into something entirely new once the potential and power of AI is fully realized. But, like Lagarde, we must accept this, harness it and continue to create and innovate.
Far from the scare-mongering super-robot Apocalypse 2.0 demise of humanity that we often hear of, a quick look at what smartly-deployed AI can do for government communications – and its trickle-down impact on citizens and end-users – shows that there is as much cause for optimism as there is for concern.
What emerges from the mist of uncertainty around the brave new AI world is knowledge that we will have better tools than ever at our disposal to solve complex public-sector problems, a finely-honed ability to better understand citizens’ wants, create new channels of communication between government and citizen, and perhaps most importantly, we will free up the people powering our industries to focus on core tasks and give them more time and room for creativity.
Saving the workforce
According to Deloitte research, current government work, including the documenting and recording of vital information, consumes half a billion federal government employee hours per year, at a cost of over $16 billion in wages. With smartly implemented AI, we can change workflow systems and free up billions of labor hours while saving $21.6 billion in wages, according to some estimates.
The immediate reaction to these figures is obviously chastening. With AI, including deep learning and machine learning, accounting for such a large chunk of the work being done by human employees, there is no need for them, surely? Not exactly.
This combination of human and computer strengths will allow time-consuming and repetitive tasks to be streamlined and automated, which in turn will free up employees to work on being more creative and collaborate with agencies.
And this is where the role of the communications professional looms large on the horizon, forming an indispensable part of the whole government comms sector.
As the PR and comms industry catches up and harnesses the power of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, we will be able to advise, counsel and craft messages for our government clients with pinpoint accuracy. These messages will resonate with citizens and consumers of information and media like never before.
Newsrooms have adapted, so must we
Given that much of the media output today is covered by automation, we need to take another step ahead. For instance, over a third of the articles published by Bloomberg today are written with the assistance of automation technologies to varying degrees. The Associated Press now publishes 3,700 reports every quarter with AI tech. And newsrooms across the world are now relying on the speedy turn-around of copy from robots.
This might appear scary for the human capital involved in the publishing side of media. But where are these robots getting their information? From communicated sources of intelligent information. In other words, from us, the communications professionals adept enough to move and change with the times, and who have pioneered new, disruptive ways of disseminating information to the press.
At APCO Worldwide, we have anticipated this necessity to utilize AI for some time now. When we developed our seminal AI Comms Lab in June last year, we reached a great epiphany, and in turn, our clients have reaped the benefits.
In short, our AI Comms Lab is able to detect, define and recognize content consumer behaviors across all media. From preferred means of accessing government data to engagement rates with a given client’s social media posts, this AI-powered technology allows us to make hypotheses, conduct experiments, uncover new ideas and come up with disruptive solutions to share with our colleagues and clients. Today, this is our modus operandi.
And what this boils down to in the government space is an ability to create engaging, targeted and pinpointed campaigns that can provide messages and content that reach the end-user with the desired impact. Far from being out-of-touch and aloof from the public’s wants and needs, government entities can get on with the times.
There are clearly some red flags here. Firstly, given the swathe of content available across all platforms today, finding and accessing your client’s content – regardless of how important to the world it may be – is no stroll in the cyberspace park. We therefore need to use AI to make the content we generate noticeable, prominent and get it to the right people.
But this itself creates another issue: although we have insights into user behaviors and preferences, there’s nothing that says that what they like is good for them or society. This presents a particular challenge to government comms across media. In the efforts we make to cater to consumer’s current behaviors, there’s a risk that a political stance, policy or message might move too far towards what it isn’t in order to reach the widest audience.
And then, of course there is the hugely debated issue of ethics, with concepts like geo-targeting. We have seen the rumbling controversies surrounding certain elections and campaigns where disruptive technologies have been used and abused to influence public opinion. This is something we must always keep in mind when we craft our narratives, slogans and campaigns for any client operating in the public-sector, governmental spheres.
In this age of Uber, Amazon and Airbnb, today’s consumers – and by extension citizens – are accustomed to accessible, high-quality, digital services tailored to meet their needs. It is this experience with private sector technologies that is shaping their expectation for government service delivery.
In turn, the transforming government and citizen relationship has necessitated a radical rethink of government services. The “smart citizen” demands an alteration of government service paradigms – shifting from services to a focus on the journey. This is precisely something that storytellers are in the position to provide. This is where government comms is headed.
In some conversations with government executives, we’ve found that many lack a clear vision of how AI applications will affect their staff, missions and communications. This is natural; there is no precedent. And that is why our role as professional communicators across the gamut of the digital, social and digital media space is an indispensable one.
Daniel Kahneman, the Nobel laureate and professor of psychology and public affairs emeritus at the Woodrow Wilson School, has said that it is difficult to imagine a future for humans with sufficient data and processes in place. “No one wants to accept that machines will be better than humans in everything.”
This may be the case. No human can consume and process the volume of information a computer is able to. But it will always take a human to understand and empathize with the subjective, emotional nature of other human beings. And there is perhaps no space more human than the political sphere, where people navigate power struggles, drive decisions and shape policies for the betterment of their fellow humankind. It is still down to us to communicate this objective, and it always will be.
Imad Lahad, head of APCO Worldwide’s AI Comms Lab and co-lead of the firm’s global Digital practice. This article was part of June’s print edition.