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The 'Automation' of PR?
By: Gerard E. Mayers
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There have been many stories in the press recently about the use of algorithms. We may not realize it, but every time we go to a search site such as Google or Ask Me and enter a search query, it is an algorithm that both decides where the best information can be quickly found to address our query and ranks the results in descending page order.

For many years now, Wall Street has used algorithms to speed up trading and guide investors in their portfolio decisions.

Algorithms are now apparently being used to decide which resume will cross an HR or hiring manager’s desk to fill job vacancies, to make decisions on which new piece of music will be the next big hit, etc.

The expanding use of algorithms, in a Wall Street Journal book review piece by Evgeny Morozov of a new book titled “Automate This: How Algorithms Came to Rule Our World” by Christopher Steiner, is fraught with risk and ethical questions. The real crux of the matter boils down to this one concern: Do we really want a small piece of opaque or possibly proprietary code making decisions for us, rather than helping us make the decisions ourselves?

In an article titled “The Tyranny of Algorithms,” Mr. Morozov noted, "In 'Player Piano,' his 1952 dystopian novel, Kurt Vonnegut rebelled against automation. ... Vonnegut would probably be terrified by Christopher Steiner's provocative 'Automate This,' a book about our growing reliance on algorithms. By encoding knowledge about the world into simple rules that computers can follow, algorithms produce faster decisions. ...As we think through the role that algorithms should play in our lives—and the various feats of automation that they enable—two questions are particularly important. First, is a given instance of automation feasible? Second, is it desirable? Computer scientists have been asking both questions for decades in the context of artificial intelligence.”

One might plausibly argue that using algorithms not only to predict which PR campaigns would be most successful but also how to craft such campaigns might be a good thing. However, as Mr. Morozov noted, “Algorithms don't build their judgments on anything—their creators do.”

Morozov continued, “...On the whole, though, Mr. Steiner believes that we need to accept our algorithmic overlords. Accept them we might—but first we should vigorously, and transparently, debate the rules they are imposing. Following several high-profile scandals involving algorithmic trading, regulators in Hong Kong have recently proposed that all such algorithms be audited and tested every year. Similar calls have been made with regard to independent audits of Google's search algorithms—if only to avoid the impression that the company might be favoring its own services in its search results."

So back to my initial question. Should PR be automated? This writer believes good PR is as much an art as it is a science. While science might be able to be automated, he does not believe art can. What do you think?

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About the Author
Gerard E. "Gerry" Mayers writes about PR and other relevant topics for PR professionals. A former PR manager for Sensor Products, Inc. (currently based in Madison, NJ), he lives in Milford, NJ.
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