Episode 5

Published on:

7th Mar 2024

S4 E5: Embracing AI in Public Relations with Nick Leighton

In this episode, Nick Leighton discusses the role of AI in public relations and how it has revolutionized the industry. He walks through a typical PR campaign and explains how AI can be used at each stage, from market analysis to media monitoring. Nick emphasizes the importance of human intelligence and creativity in conjunction with AI tools, as they complement each other in delivering effective communication strategies. Nick and Abbie also discuss the ethical considerations of using AI in PR, with a focus on transparency and disclosure.

Key Takeaways

  • AI has brought significant advancements to the PR and marketing industry, particularly in the area of language processing.
  • AI can be used at various stages of a PR campaign, including market analysis, messaging development, content creation, media profiling, media pitching, media monitoring, and client-agency interaction.
  • While AI can perform specific tasks with precision, it cannot replace human intelligence and creativity, especially in understanding complex human emotions.
  • Transparency and disclosure are crucial when using AI in PR, ensuring clients and stakeholders are aware of its use and the policies in place.
  • AI can be a valuable tool in crisis communications, enabling faster reactions, media monitoring, and content creation.

About the Guest

Nick Leighton is the founder and CEO of NettResults International Public Relations, an award-winning Middle East-based public relations agency launched in November 1999 with offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Jeddah, and California. He has over 25 years of experience in media relations and marketing and has lived and worked in the United States, Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. He has represented the public image of Fortune 500 companies, some of the largest non-profit organizations in the world, political parties, and members of royalty.

Nick’s first degree was in psychology, and he followed this with an MBA from Leicester Business School in the United Kingdom, a center of excellence in marketing. He also has a diploma in marketing from the Chartered Institute of Marketing in the UK and a PMP from the Project Management Institute. In 2023, he gained his certificate in Managing Happiness from Harvard University. He is also a certified Sommelier.

Nick is co-author of the crisis communications book CRISIS COMMUNICATION: practical PR strategies for reputation management and company survival, published by Kogan Page in December 2008. His latest best-selling book is Exactly Where You Want to Be – A business owner's guide to passion, profit, and happiness. He splits his time between California and the Middle East and travels extensively for business and pleasure..

About the Host

Abbie Fink is president of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, crisis communications, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations.

PRGN Presents is brought to you by Public Relations Global Network, the world’s local public relations agency. Our executive producer is Adrian McIntyre.

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Adrian McIntyre:

From the Public Relations Global Network, this is PRGN Presents. I'm Adrian McIntyre.

Abbie Fink:

And I'm Abbie Fink, president of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of PRGN. With public relations leaders embedded into the fabric of the communities we serve, clients hire our agencies for the local knowledge, expertise, and connections in markets spanning six continents across the world.

Adrian McIntyre:

Our guests on this biweekly podcast series are all members of the Public Relations Global Network. They discuss such topics as the importance of sustainability and Environmental, Social, and Governance programs, crisis communications, content marketing, reputation management, and outside of the box thinking for growing your business.

Abbie Fink:

For more information about PRGN and our members, please visit prgn.com. And now, let's meet our guest for this episode.

Nick Leighton:

Hi, I’m Nick Layton. I’m the CEO, founder of NettResults, a PR and marketing agency based in the Middle East, offices in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and in Saudi Arabia, and do work throughout the region.

Abbie Fink:

So, Nick, I think you cannot have a conversation with a communications professional these days without AI being at least mentioned. Pro, con, haven’t tried it, need to try it, can’t live without it, but it is definitely part of the conversation amongst our colleagues. leagues. And I think we’re way past, you know, should you, or shouldn’t you? And it really needs to be how are you incorporating, you know, these this technology into the work that we’re doing on behalf of our clients. So with that in mind, you know, where do you see it going? Where are we at now as we kind of look forward to this becoming a tad bit more mainstream, if you will, those of us are certainly more comfortable with it? And how are we using it? What should we be thinking about as we incorporate this type of technology into the strategies that we’re bringing forward to our clients?

Nick Leighton:

Abbie, that’s a great question. We’re recording this the first week in December of ‘23. And that means that ChatGPT has been out for one year and one week. And think how far we’ve come. It’s been crazy. Now, I’m not saying that ChatGPT was the first AI that we could use. In fact, many of us in the industry have been using other AIs in the past, probably for about two, three years now, but they just were not at the level that we’ve seen. So yes, there’s been a huge amount of progress in what we can do with AI, how we can incorporate that into our work, into the industry. But for those people who are listening who are not on that train yet, don’t worry. The train has barely left the station. In fact, I think it’s still time to open the door, turn around, pick up your baggage and walk on the train. It is not moving. We’re going to see huge changes. So that’s my disclaimer, if you like, for what we’re going to talk about right now is what’s happened in one year of everyone talking about it and where we can use it. But I’m sure in the weeks, months and years ahead, it’s going to change drastically, and we can guess what’s going to happen. So let’s first of all talk about what is it? What has it brought to us? And I think the main difference, particularly in our industry, is that we now have technology around us that can use words and language.

Before a year ago, if you wanted someone in your agency to crunch numbers, we could go to Excel or Google Sheets, something like that, and we could do that really well. No problem. But we didn’t have a way of talking about words or language and breaking that down. And that’s what AI has really brought to us in the last year. So I thought we’d take you through a regular campaign, how we can use AI in a PR campaign. Make sense?

Abbie Fink:

Sounds great.

Nick Leighton:

Okay. So let’s start with when we set up with a client. We’re probably doing some market or competitor analysis. That’s great. Now we can go and we can source what the competitor has been saying in a certain market over the last two years. We can pull all those articles in. But AI is great for breaking that down. So we can load up an AI program and say, this is all the information that we can find about a subject matter in a geography over a certain amount of time but AI can now break all that down and bring you some real value so you can set up what’s going on in the market which then leads the second part which is messages talking points for that client if your competitors talk about this this and this the market is interested in this this and this this is where we should be talking this is where we should be adding messages into the market so that’s the second area messaging talking points then normally what we do is we start creating some content AI can be used in that area. We can go into what’s good or what’s bad, but AI helps us create content. Then once we have content, we need to find some media. So we need to profile the media, see who can speak to, who we can talk through to reach our customers. AI helps in that area. Then when we talk about pitching, well, again, we can get a lot of information from one journalist, one editor, find out what they’ve talked about, how they’ve written about things. And we can check that profile and we can almost pitch in a unique way that’s going to work for them. We know the words are going to resonate. We know what subject matter they’re going to talk about. So that’s great. Media pitching. That’s a great one.

Then of course, hopefully we get some results. So media monitoring, a lot of AI could be used in media monitoring. We can in real time, see sentiment, we can see things coming in. We can see what’s going to happen in the future. And then I think the last, the seventh area is the way that we speak with our clients, that client agency interaction. There are a lot of tools there right now which can simplify that, which can really mean that we spend most of our time doing the PR and not a lot of time on this account management communications element.

Abbie Fink:

One thing in all of what you said there that I am so appreciative is this “we” part. We can, we can, we shall, we work. And I had a very interesting conversation with a prospective client the other day who asked me point blank, “why do I need you if I can do this with AI?” And he wasn’t entirely wrong in asking the question, I mean, in terms of thinking about it and understanding it. But where we went down that path was this, there is still a partnership between the people that are doing the work and the technology that we’re using, and what we deliver as the end result to the client and so no matter and this can be really true with any of the technology we’ve had over the years maybe this one just feels a little bit more.

The potential to challenge us a little bit differently. But no matter how you use this technology, there still has to be the human element in analyzing the information, we still have to understand correctly what we are putting into the technology to ask it the right questions to deliver the results that we’re hoping to get. And it can’t, at least I don’t believe it can completely replace the human in this communications effort. And so, you know, advancing this into the conversation with the client and helping them to understand how we’re using these tools, we also have to understand that they may come back and say, if the tool is there, why do I need you? And I think we have to start talking about what that means and that there is nothing that will replace how we can analyze and develop strategy from the information we’re gleaning from these different technologies.

Nick Leighton:

Yeah, absolutely right. So today, while AI can perform specific tasks with remarkable precision, it can’t fully replace human intelligence or creativity. It lacks consciousness and emotions, which limits its ability to understand complex human emotions. And that’s what we talk about in PR.

Adrian McIntyre:

I think it’s important to clarify for anyone who asks this question that the current state of these tools is that they are responding, not thinking. And it looks like they’re thinking because they’re spitting out very thoughtful, well-constructed sentences, but that’s what a large language model does. It rearranges words in meaningful ways, following established patterns, having been trained on all of Language. That’s what GPT stands for, a Generative Pre-trained Transformer. So it is taking sentences and transforming them according to its training. It’s not thinking. Not yet. We undoubtedly will get there, but we’re not there. So someone has to be doing the thinking, and that’s where the communication professionals, with their intuition and their experience, can ask the right questions, direct the tools to complete the right tasks at the right time, and can understand the outputs. That’s my thought about it. Nick, what about you?

Nick Leighton:

I think you’re absolutely right. The name is pretty misleading. There is no intelligence involved here. There’s no consciousness involved. There’s no artificial consciousness, and there is no intelligence in AI. It’s how you use it. It’s a computation, at the end of the day. If we go back to Excel or Google Sheets, the fact that we can crunch numbers really quickly is amazing. People who can manipulate large amounts of numbers and digits in an Excel sheet, it was groundbreaking years ago in the business environment. We’re just doing the same now, but with words.

Abbie Fink:

So when you are, the seven steps you laid out are the seven ways that you can potentially use, you know, AI in our strategy development and delivery. What are the conversations look like with your clients when you are or and how are you talking to them about using this? I mean, part of me says this is no different than any other technology or thing that we use to do the work that we do subscriptions that we, you know, for social media platforms or other things. It’s just another tool in our tool chest to use. But somehow this has risen to the top and I think become more mainstream in terms of what businesses are looking at. So I’m curious how this, the conversation starts and how you are, you know, leading your, your clients or prospects through how you’re going to use it and why and the benefits to them. You know, if you do bring this into the, into the fold, why it is actually a positive, you know, for the work that we do.

Nick Leighton:

Right. Well, I think any agency or any internal department for that matter should have a policy in place. How are we using AI? And then obviously everyone on the team needs to be aware of it. So that’s what we’re aware of when we talk with a potential client. it. So first of all, where’s your policies? How are we going to use AI? Are we using ethically and be open that we are using AI? But within that, there’s a number of elements such as security that we need to be aware of, privacy, we need to be aware of. So right up front, if we’re talking to a prospect, right up front, if we’re going to use AI in our work, when we’re talking to a prospective client, we will be open and say, we use AI, but we have a policy behind that. And we’ve trained everyone on the team how to use that. So then I agree with you, it is a tool that we use. While we may or may not talk about what tool we use to reach the media or to media monitor, it’s something that we’re using. We don’t disclose every single time we use it. We have a blanket umbrella policy, and we work within that. So everyone knows where we’re at. But we don’t say this is a unique piece of content that we created using AI, because we haven’t. We may have used it to help us, but it’s always gone through some human interaction.

So that’s where we stand. There are ethical issues as far as using AI. We’re open that we use it. And beyond that, it is a tool that we use within our processes.

Abbie Fink:

Do you believe that the ethical question has to do with... Well, my opinion, I suppose I’m not asking you the question, but the ethical component has to do with, you know, in my view, presenting this as though we created it, that it is original work that we have created on your behalf as opposed to gleaning information from, you know, from sources. And we’ve certainly started to see, you know, media outlets are being very open about, you know, freelance writers, you know, original work, signing, you know, an agreement that you are not generating this content using AI, or if you are, you disclose it. That full, you know, reports are coming out that have no human part except the one that put the information in in the first place. So for me, the ethical part is really the honest effort that says, this is how we use this tool, no different than how we use anything else to gather research, find the right journalists, determine what they’ve been writing about and such. It’s just another opportunity for us. But it’s the disclosure part that I think we have to pay most attention to that, that how we use it and why. Needs to be forefront, you know, in our conversations.

Nick Leighton:

Yeah, absolutely.

Adrian McIntyre:

And at the same time, if you think about the level of background activities that have already been driving our work in this field, we are doing media training with spokespeople to pre-frame their responses. We are having them practice. We are giving them talking points. The negative view of that is, well, it’s spin. The positive view of that is, well, it’s a measured communication about a dynamic situation. So there’s already a lot of things happening that are shaping the output. I personally, since we’re airing our opinions here, think that we’ve put the humanness of this a little bit on a pedestal. And that over time, we will start realizing that fundamentally what’s going on is that some of our activities weren’t all that unique to begin with. And so whether a human is doing them or an algorithm is doing them isn’t really the point. Now, truth still has to be our guiding principle. Openness and transparency is still important. But at some point, we will stop essentializing this human factor as if it was all that important in the first place. That’s one man’s opinion. But I think that’s where we’re headed.

Nick Leighton:

Yeah, I agree. If we just talk about content creation, let’s just take press releases. So within any given agency or internal department, there is a press release template. Okay, we’ve looked at other press releases. This is the template we think is the best to use. It changes a little bit, but not very much. It doesn’t matter what country you’re in. It’s kind of the same. So the fact that we have a template in our agency that we use, is that really any different from getting the template from an AI generated place. That part, I don’t think there is. Now let’s just talk about the content. I think the biggest AI ethical question is privacy. We’re in a privileged situation where we often know about information before it should be in the public domain. So therefore you shouldn’t really be using a open AI such as chat GPT and using real names. I should not put into there X company is about to purchase Y company because that’s not information that should be out there. But, you know, if we can find a way to get around that, of course, there are ways of doing that, then we’re in the right track.

Abbie Fink:

Where do you feel about in the context of issues management or crisis communications, as in this example you just gave, you would be creating potentially an issue if you disclose information incorrectly. correctly. But because these AI and the chat GPTs and, you know, creator, image creators, and all these things have an ability to be quite real in what it’s creating, you can see how this could be used to compromise a particular project or program, right? We can, you know, if you are working with an organization that’s about to go public, and there’s, you know, good information, and it somehow leaks out to the competitor, they can create content that looks real and acts real and mimics your spokespeople and other things. So what can we do? Is there things we can do to really protect what is out there, how it’s being used, and to keep our clients safe from the opposite of the positive things that this technology can do for us?

Nick Leighton:

Right. Well, I think we’re in an interesting year, certainly in the US and in a number of countries around the world, because 2024 will be an election year. So I am sure we’re going to see examples of misinformation and AI used in ways that maybe it wasn’t intended. So that’s going to happen. So let’s look internally for our clients and how we use it ourselves. AI has already been proven that it can help us in a crisis situation because the most important thing in a crisis situation is speed. Our speed to react and to get in front of a story. So to have everything ready, to be able to talk to our trusted media, to tell them what is going on and the media monitoring tools are out there, or your own accumulation of how to do media monitoring can happen much quicker with AI. We can see sentiment shift of stories almost in real time now, meaning that yes, we can always get media monitoring. We can find out when a story is going live, which mentions our client or a product name, et cetera. But now if AI can be used to get the sentiment of that story and we can start seeing changes in sentiments to the minute, we suddenly have tools that can raise our crisis communication alert systems. That’s fantastic. And then of course, we can use AI to create talking points, messaging and content quicker. That’s not to say that it’s any more than a co-pilot. We still need people involved in it from our agencies, but we can react quicker. And I think that’s the winning formula when it comes to a crisis situation.

Abbie Fink:

So I’m thinking about it in terms of professional skills. You know, when in some of us that came up in the field, you know, evolved from typewriters to computers, you know, from fax machines to emails. Right. We know how these things have improved our ability to do the work that we’ve done.

But we were still doing the same work. You know, we still knew we had to do these things. I see the understanding of this technology to be able to do the critical thinking needed to analyze for sentiment, for review it for accuracy is going to be a very important skill set for, you know, up and coming professionals, certainly that are trying to get into the market. But for those of us that are, you know, looking to hone skills and continue to learn, it’s not so much about just being able to say, you know, type in a good prompt and get answers, is we really need the analytical skills to evaluate what we’re getting and determine it. And a few conferences I’ve attended have all asked the question, will we be replaced? And the answer has always been, you’ll only be replaced if you don’t learn how to do it. The technology itself won’t replace us, but the people that don’t understand it and don’t learn how to use it correctly and then use it strategically and analyze what’s there is how you will be replaced. So I see this as really impacting the workplace and the workforce who needs to develop a real strong understanding of what this can do.

Nick Leighton:

So, Abbie, I get that point of view. I actually looked at it from a slightly different perspective. So if we go back and we look at the typewriter, okay, we all learn how to type. I don’t know about you. I learned on a typewriter in a school, having to do all those funky words and trying to get to a certain speed to pass, you know, to get to the next level. And we all thought that that was going to be groundbreaking. If you couldn’t type, then you weren’t going to succeed. seed. I don’t know how my kids type because they never went through some typing class. They type it with probably one finger, but they’re as quick as I am. They’ve adapted. Then think about when personal computers came around. And if you couldn’t use a personal computer, you’re going to get replaced. But personal computers isn’t a thing anymore. It’s just integrated into our life. Then mobile computing came around and everyone said, well, you know, unless you can send a text message and you use your mobile phone, you’re going to get replaced. And I think many people listening to this worked on accounts with those kinds of devices. It just integrates into our life. I think what we’re going to see for artificial intelligence, and this is now my prediction, is that it’s not going to be a thing. It’s not going to be a unique thing. It’s going to be absorbed into other things. So your software that you already use will be using artificial intelligence. The way that artificial intelligence will get integrated into everything else we do, so it won’t be a thing you’re going to learn how to use artificial intelligence. It’ll just be part and integrated into everything else we’re using that has opportunities and it has challenges.

Let me give you one example. So we, many people who are listening right now, understand that we use Zoom or Teams or Google to meet in a virtual setting. Some of those tools already exist that they will listen to the call. They will write out your notes and you will have action points at the end of that. That’s using AI in a productive way to save you time. You don’t have to use AI. The conference calling system has just integrated AI. And I think that’s how it’s going to move forward.

Adrian McIntyre:

Thanks for listening to this episode of PRGN Presents, brought to you by the Public Relations Global Network.

Abbie Fink:

We publish new episodes every other week, so follow PRGN Presents in your favorite podcast app. Episodes are also available on our website—along with more information about PRGN and our members—at prgn.com.

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About the Podcast

PRGN Presents: News & Views from the Public Relations Global Network
Leading a business effectively in today's fast-paced and interconnected world requires expert guidance and a strong communications strategy. The Public Relations Global Network is here to help.
PRGN Presents is the essential podcast for international business leaders, non-profit executives, and those who hire public relations, marketing, and communications firms. It provides an exclusive look into the ever-evolving world of PR and communications, featuring experts from the Public Relations Global Network, “the world’s local public relations agency.”

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In each episode, you’ll hear PR professionals and industry experts share valuable insights and perspectives on the latest trends in public relations, Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG), media relations, crisis management, investor relations, stakeholder engagement, executive thought leadership, and strategic communications.

About your host

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Abbie S. Fink

Abbie S. Fink is president of HMA Public Relations in Phoenix, Arizona and a founding member of the Public Relations Global Network. Her marketing communications background includes skills in media relations, digital communications, social media strategies, special event management, community relations, issues management, and marketing promotions for both the private and public sectors, including such industries as healthcare, financial services, professional services, government affairs and tribal affairs, as well as not-for-profit organizations. Abbie is often invited to present to a wide variety of business and civic organizations on such topics as media relations, social media and digital communications strategies, crisis communications, and special events management.