ROBOT COMMS: What public sector comms people need to know about artificial intelligence

33386539904_6aeb277514_o

There’s this amazing clip from late 1970s Blue Peter where the presenters are demonstrating the first commercial mobile phone.

John Noakes stays in the studio while Peter Purves heads into the Blue Peter garden and whips out from under his mac an over the shoulder plastic phone. You can tell the smugness in his voice as he dials his colleague.

Ladies and gentlemen, the mobile phone.

And so, Artificial Intelligence – or AI – will become as normal as texting or taking a selfie is now. This is not sci-fi fantasy but what is happening today. Just less than four million Google Home and Amazon Alexa devices have been sold in the UK, researchers voicebot.ai say. By far the largest number in Europe.

But, what is Artificial Intelligence?

In 2018, most people don’t know what Artificial Intelligence is. But what they do know is it sounds scary. In a nutshell, they are computers that learn. The dictionary definition is computer systems that can complete tasks that normally require human intelligence such as visual recognition, speech recognition and decision making.

To get you started, I’d suggest taking six minutes to watch the HubSpot animation that makes it as Blue Peter as possible without a trip into the Italian Sunken Garden:

Artificial Intelligence can be very scary, can’t it?

AI at home is still the preserve of early adoptors. My video skills colleague Steven has had one for months. When he asks Google to do something it often even does the thing he’s asked it to do.

Me? I’m in several camps. I want to know more as it is going to shape the world we live in but I’m dubious. I’m not thrilled by the idea of a swarm of killer drones. I’m not that thrilled that the top search for military drones is the Chinese mail-order giant Alibaba. Robotics researcher Peter Haas in his Ted Talk talks about the lack of ethics in the field.

Me? I’m more struck by the rather excellent @internetofshit that talks RTs accounts of Teslas being stranded in the desert as they can only re-start with a mobile phone signal. Or the lift that can’t be used because of a system update.

In that context, AI is very, very scary indeed. But that’s not where AI is right now.

Artificial Intelligence is here, baby. Right here

Of course, its not all swarms of drones with machine guns.  In fact. It’s hardly that at all. Former CIPR President Stephen Waddington has been leading some superb work to look at where AI is in PR. I simply cannot recommend his work enough.

Through the #AIinPR project, Stephen and around 20 volunteers have collated an open list of tools that already have elements of AI in them. The results are truly surprising. There are more than 150 tools identified that have an element of AI in them.

belf16

The full Google sheet with the findings can be found here.

What’s striking about the list is how commonplace the tools are. Link shortener bitly, for exampls, has been a staple for the best part of a decade. Mailchimp, If This Then That and Canva are staples of my working day. Your’s too, maybe.

So, if AI is also day-to-day, doesn’t that mean that AI is already having an impact on PR and comms?

The answer to that is ‘yes.’

How much AI is affecting you… and will affect you

Again, Stephen Waddington’s inspired research is useful to map the next steps. His work leads into CIPR’s excellent ‘Humans Still Required’ report by Canadian academic Jean Valin. This sets out how much of PR is already AI-affected. At the moment, 12 per cent of PR is potentially AI. That’s things like evaluation, data processing, programming and curation.

But it starts getting even more interesting when looking at the future. The figure rises to 36 per cent by 2023. There’s a whole range of areas that can be maximised from stakeholder analysis to reputation monitoring. Areas like ethics, law and career management stay outside the long reach of the robots.

Other research from the University of Oxford put PR managers as the 67th safest from a list of more than 700.

All this is striking. But where does it affect you?

The future is already quietly colliding with the presentout of view.  There is no one single moment but a series of moments. It’s already happening. There is no announcement to close 100 pits but 100,000 decisions to use different software that can help you do your job more easily.

AI will come not through the organisation but through suppliers. In all likelihood, this won’t be driven by individual teams writing code but an arms race between providers. A to-be-invented Google tool, for example. Or the news management software company that adds AI elements to existing AI elements to its own existing press release management system.

Content will be written by AI. News agency Press Association are experimenting with distributing news stories written by AI. If news stories can be written this way then press releases and other content can be too. But that’ll be through a supplier doing the hard yards and pricing it.

At first, AI knowledge will be outsourced. Given the rapid developments in the sector and the fact that existing public sector teams are busy enough already there isn’t the headspace. Advice from outside will be important at the start. It’ll be as much about efficiencies as it is delivering a better job.

Sit back, but don’t sit back. Others will be doing the hard yards to make this work. But don’t sign your future away.  A baseline need to understand AI is needed. You won’t need to know how to code. But you will know how that code can affect you and most importantly of all, you’ll need to know the ethics and the law of it.  For the public sector, this is going to be tricky. Right now, there isn’t a publicly-accepted code of ethics for AI. But there are broader approaches that can govern it across the sector. Like GDPR, for example.

Leaders will have to lead to bring teams along. AI is and can be scary. It is different. Yes, it can mean fewer people doing the job. But the tasks it may replace are likely to be the routine in comms and PR rather than the the big ticket. You won’t be sending a robot along the corridor to the crisis meeting with emergency planning to discuss the three day old fire. You will be automating the fire’s evaluation.

The risk of ‘computer says no’ IT teams. PR and comms risk outsourcing AI knowledge at their own peril. From fear or ignorance, there is a temptation to look to IT for answers. But with many IT teams being the blocker and struggling even 10 years on with social media, this isn’t a strategy to take. You need to know some of the basics yourself to work out what can and can’t be done.

Data driven decisions. Often public sector comms can be driven by personality, politicians and practice. One of the great achievements of the UK’s Government Communications Service is to move away from comms that’s just churning stuff out for the sake of it. But other teams and other organisations still shoot from the hip. In an emergency, there is nothing better than working at speed on-the-hoof. That skill will stay hugely valuable. But there feels like a clash between this and the more data-driven strategic approach of AI. It’ll be interesting to see how this works itself out.

Reputational damage and lots of it. The application of bad AI in parts of the sector will be keenly felt. The self-driving car delivering meals on wheels to the wrong house. The very idea of self-driving cars delivering meals on wheels in the first place.  This will all be bread and butter. The benefits of AI won’t be celebrated but the disasters absolutely will be. There is a huge role for comms in explaining – and warning – against the delivery.

‘Hey Google, what time does the tip close?’ Websites are useful but cumbersome things. Your organisation will not prosper if they can’t work with tools like Alexa. One idea kicking around is for a box in the kitchen that talks to the local council website and flashes the colour of the right bin that needs to go out the night before. That’s AI right there, that is.

Learning. Ever learning. The comms person who thinks they’ve learned everything is the one who will be replaced. This is not remotely a bold statement. We’re seeing it. If the only skill you have is writing press releases that’s not something you’ll be getting a new job with. But a range of skills and a willingness to learn gives you a chance of a career. AI just underlines this. Stephen Waddington’s advice to learn, read and keep learning is valuable.

Open the pod bay doors, Hal. In 2001 A Space Odyssey the human is faced down by Hal the robot who refuses to open the pod bay doors. This is one moment is the nightmare scenario for humans. It’s the moment when computers take control. But I’m genuinely not seeing this in comms and PR just yet. Hal the robot refusing to do write the Facebook update? Probably not. R2D2 software running the alerts and producing the reports for you? Then next week producing machine-learnt better reports? Absolutely.

Pic credit: Robot by Alexander Svensson /Flickr.  

 

 

 

 


PLUS ONE: Why Google+ is now part of the comms landscape

google_plus_logoLadies and gentlemen, I admit it. Google+ is starting to become a contender for comms people. 

Yes, it’s true that it has only a percentage of the users that Facebook has. But when the bottom line of that percentage is 230 million that’s a significant figure.

It’s also true that some people have been evangelising about what Google+  can do for a long time. For a quick catch-up try Stephen Waddington herehere and here.

As someone who dodged the hype of the ill-feted Google Wave I hung back when Google+ was launched as a local government comms person. A couple of things have made me re-think things.

Firstly, there is the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’s Google+ page that has racked-up more than 200,000 likes. Shane Dillon has been a real evangelist for the platform and as one of the pioneers he deserves credit and wrote a fine post on the page here.

Secondly, there was a hugely fascinating chat with Shane as well as community web evangelist John Popham, Leah Lockhart from Scottish local government and Phil Rumens from localgov digital who wrote this fine post on what it can offer. That chat really offered up some insight.

Thirdly, there’s the Birmingham City Council Google+ page with more than 24,000 users. That moves the bar from being a global brand thing and one that my corner of local government can take a look at.

So, in Janet and John terms, what’s Google +?

For me, it’s an intelligent Facebook without the farms or a slightly longer Twitter. It’s ad free for now. It’s a place to start a discussion or share a link, a video clip or an image. When you start an account you can create circles where people from different interests can be placed so you can more easily drink from the firehose of information.

When you have your own account you can then create a page that acts in the same sort of way that a Facebook page does for the Google+ community.

So how has this big corporation attempt at social sneaked-up up on us all?

The reality is that since it was launched in summer 2011 there has been a devoted list of people who have been using it and enjoying. Niche perhaps at first but they’re growing and as Google+ develops and keeps adding features that are rather useful those numbers will grow.

Many were sceptical at Google’s record in the field. Great tech but poorly presented. Besides, this felt like a top-down invention from big business rather than something that emerged from a start-up’s bedroom. The counter argument is that neither Facebook or Twitter are exactly small business these days.

Fullscreen capture 29062013 232217

Where are the good examples?

When I asked the question 12-months ago there were few if any pages that you could look at and feel as though new ground was being made. But here are three good pages.

With more than 3.2 million followers (or maybe they’re likers? Or plus-ers?) the Cadbury page  is witty, imaginative and engaging. It’s a soft sell. There is sharable content aimed at people who like chocolate. Look hard enough and you’ll see the purple and white branding.

Furniture made out of chocolate photographed and posted, for example.

Odd as though it may sound, amongst the corporate pages there’s a rather lovely example from little business too. Ladders Online are a company that supply extra big ladders. Their page features content of inappropriate ladders badly positions and other trade advice. If ladders can be made to be engaging what is the rest of us waiting for?

The Foreign & Commonwealth Office page for me is the gold standard. There’s senior buy-in. There’s updates from the Minister and good content.

Birmingham City Council’s Google+ page went into orbit after Google reached out and made contact, verifying it and then promoting it. As I understand it from Guy Evans, the council’s social media officer, content is linked to Facebook.

When the Shropshire Family Information Service wanted to reach more more they chose Google+ as a way to do it. More knackered dads use the platform that knackered mums and elsewhere North Yorkshire County Council are starting to make some sense of it while Toronto Police used the Google hangout functionality to livestream a press conference here. In New Mexico in the US Governor Gary Johnson staged a hangout with some residents. 

Fullscreen capture 29062013 232548

What’s good about Google+

  1. Google juice. There’s extra brownie points in the search rankings for a link from Google+.  For the most part, my corner of local government doesn’t have to stress too much about such things as SEO (that’s search engine optimisation, the art of getting a website up the Google search rankings.) But for micro-sites and other projects this is rather good.
  2. Google hangouts. Back in the day video conferencing was an expensive business. With Google hangouts there is built-in video conferencing between users and the ability to run it via YouTube to larger audiences.
  3. It’s not got adverts. A refreshing change after spending time on the hyper-targeted world of Facebook. Google makes it’s money via search, mainly so doesn’t need to spam users just yet.
  4. Images and video. Realising that good images get shared it’s clear that they’ve put images at the heart of things. You post a link and the image gets posted prominently to catch the eye.
  5. How to use it is largely a white piece of paper. Because it’s new it’s not blighted by people who claim to know what they’re doing and where you’re going wrong. 

What’s bad about Google+

  1. There aren’t the numbers of Facebook or Twitter. They have big numbers but not really, really big numbers.
  2. The mobile apps aren’t great. Certainly the Android app is a bit clunky for pages although this may change.
  3. It’s 50-50. Blogs knocking it sometimes seem equally balanced with those gushingly praising it.
  4. Anyone can add your personal profile to their circles. So be careful about dissing your boss thinking you are behind a walled garden. You’re not. There are some excellent comments on this theme on this blog post here.
  5. It doesn’t have the stickiness of Facebook. People don’t stay on it for long. Just three minutes or so a month in this study compared to more than seven hours with Facebook.

In the changing landscape, Google+ is now a feature. It’ll be interesting to see how this develops.

Huge thank you to Mike Downes for contributing to a Google+ discussion asking for good examples and to Leah LockhartPhil RumensShane Dillon and John Popham for their continuing inspiration.


BOW SKILLS: 37 skills, abilities and platforms for today’s comms person

Before the internets were invented life must have been so dull. Y’know, really dull.

You wrote a press release, you organised a photocall and once in a while TV and radio would show an interest.

A few years back the yardstick of success where I work was getting the local TV news to come host the weather live from your patch.

There’s been a change. Like a glacier edging down the mountain valley blink and not much has happened. Come back a while later and things have unstoppably changed.

Truth is, it’s a fascinating time to be a comms person. We’re standing at the intersection between old and new.

Former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans once said that he loves newspapers but he’s intoxicated by the speed and possibility of the internet. That’s a quote I love.

Here’s another quote I love. Napoleon Dynamite once said that girls only like men with skills. Like nunchuck skills, bo staff skills or computer hacking skills. For a digital comms perspective Napoleon’s quote could be applied there too. What you need are social media skills, press release skills and interactive mapping skills. And a bit more.

Sitting down recently I calculated the many strings to the bow that are now needed. I counted 37 skills, abilities and platforms I’m either using on a regular basis or need to know. Some more than others. Or to use Napoleon’s parlance, bow skills.

Out of interest, and to save me time in googling their associated links, here they are:

TIMELESS SKILLS

The ability to understand the detail and write in plain English.

The ability to understand the political landscape.

The ability to communicate one-to-one and build relationships.

The ability to work to a deadline.

The ability to understand comms channels and what makes interesting content on each.

WRITTEN CONTENT

Write a press release. The ability to craft 300 words in journalese with a quote that’s likely to tickle the fancy of the journalist who you are sending it to.

Use Twitter. To shape content – – written, audio, images and video – in 140 characters that will be read and shared.

Use Facebook. To shape content – written, audio, images and video – that will be read and shared.

Use Wikipedia. To be aware of what content is being added knowing that this belongs to wikipedia.

Use LinkedIn. To shape content – written, audio, images and video – that will be read and shared.

IMAGES

Arrange a photocall. The ability to provide props and people to be photographed and to work with a photographer and those being photographed so everyone is happy.

Use Flickr. To source pics, to post pics to link to communities, to arrange Flickr meets.

Use Pinterest. To source pics and share your content. To build a board around an issue or a place.

Use Instagram. To share your pics.

AUDIO

Arrange a broadcast interview. The ability to provide an interviewee when required and give them an understanding of the questions and issues from a journalists’s perspective.

Record a sound clip to attach to a release, embed on a web page or share on social media. I like audioboo. I’m increasingly liking soundcloud too. It’s more flexible to use out and about.

VIDEO

Create and post a clip online and across social sites. Using a camera or a Flip camera. With YouTube or Vimeo.

WEB

Add content to a webpage. That’s the organisation’s website via its CMS.

Build a blog if needs be or add content to a blog. That’s a blog like this one or a microsite like this one.

To know and understand free blogging tools. Like wordpress or tumblr.

COMMUNITY BUILDING

To know when to respond to questions and criticism and how. The Citizenship Foundation’s Michael Grimes has done some good work in this field.

To know how to build an online community. Your own. And other communities.

HYPERLOCAL

To engage with bloggers. Like Wolverhampton Homes’ policy suggests.

To be search for blogs to work with. On sites like openly local.

LISTENING

To be aware of what’s being written about your organisation, issue, campaign or area. By tools like Google Alerts.

MAPPING

To build and edit a simple map. Like a Google map. And be aware of other platforms like Open Street Map.

ADVERTISING

To understand the landscape to know which audience reads which product. Like the local paper, Google Adwords and Facebook advertising.

MARKETING

To understand when print marketing may work. Like flyers or posters. Yes, even in 2012 the poster and the flyer are sometimes needed as part of the comms mix.

INFOGRAPHICS

To understand when information can be better presented visually. Through a simple piechart. Or more interestingly as a word cloud or via wordle. Or if its packets of data in spreadsheets or csv files through things like Google Fusion Tables or IBM’s exploratory Many Eyes.

OPEN DATA

To understand what it is and how it can help. It’s part of the landscape and needs to be understood. Internet founder Tim Berners-Lee’s TED talk is an essential six minutes viewing.

NEWSLETTERS

To understand what they are and how they can work. In print for a specific community like an estate or a town centre or via the free under 2,000 emails a month platform mailchimp to deliver tailored newsletters by email. There’s the paid for govdelivery that some authorities are using.

CURATION

To make sense of information overload and keep a things. With things like pinboard.in you can keep tabs on links you’ve noticed. Here’s mine you can browse through. For campaigns and useful interactions you can also use storify to curate and store a campaign or event. You can then embed the storify link onto a web page.

SOCIAL MEDIA

To know the right channels for the right comms. Social media shouldn’t just be a Twitter and Facebook tick box exercise. It should be knowing how and why each platforms works for each audience. Same goes for the smaller but important platforms like Pinterest, Google+, Instagram, LinkedIn and Flickr.

HORIZON SCANNING

To know what’s on the horizon and be prepared for it when it lands. Same for emerging fields like Augmented Reality. What is science fiction today will become commonplace in years to come. People like hyperlocal champions Talk About Local who are already working in this field.

ANALYTICS

To know how to measure and when to measure. The measurement for traditional comms have been around. Potential readership of newspapers. Opportunities to view. Opportunities to see. The new digital landscape doesn’t quite fit this and new ways are being worked out. There isn’t an industry standard means just yet. But the gap has been filled by those who claim to be. The very wise Dr Farida Vis, who took part in the Guardian’s acclaimed research into the English riots of 2011,  pointed out that sentiment analysis wasn’t more than 60 per cent accurate. There’s snake oil salesmen who will tell you otherwise but I’ve not come across anything that will be both shiny and also impress the chief executive. Tweetreach is a useful tool to measure how effective a hashtag or a tweet has been. Google Alerts we’ve mentioned. Hashsearch is another useful search tool from government digital wizards Dave Briggs and Steph Gray.

CONNECT

To connect with colleagues to learn, do and share. Twitter is an invaluable tool for sharing ideas and information. It’s bursting with the stuff. Follow like minded people in your field. But also those things you are interested in. Go to unconferences. Go to events. Blog about what you’ve learned and what you’ve done.

WEB GEEKNESS

To truly understand how the web works you need to use and be part of it. That way you’ll know how platforms work and you can horizon scan for new innovation and ideas. It won’t be waking up at 2am worrying about the unknown. You’ll be embracing it and getting excited about it’s possibilities.

Good comms has always been the art of good story telling using different platforms. No matter how it seems that’s not fundamentally changed. It’s just the means to tell those stories have. That’s hugely exciting.

This blog was also posted on comms2point0

Creative commons credits 

Who are you talking to most? http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/6810200488/sizes/l/

Reading a newspaper upside down http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/2542840362/sizes/l/in/set-72157623462791647/

Photographer http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/2744338675/sizes/l/in/set-72157605653216105/

Reading http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/2477046614/sizes/l/in/set-72157614042974707/

Eternally texting http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/4473276230/sizes/l/in/set-72157614042974707/

Toshiba http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/4711564626/sizes/l/in/set-72157614042974707/

Smile http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/5542156093/sizes/l/in/set-72157614042974707/


JUST RELAX: 7 ways to approach new social media platforms

So, what’s going to be the new Facebook?

So, what’s our strategy for using the new Facebook?

Actually, do you know what? Just do yourself one great big favour. Just relax. Because no-one knows. Not even Mark Zuckerburg.

There’s big predictions for the rise and rise of social media. Emarketer, for example, predicts 1.43 billion will be using social media in 2012.

There’s also no doubt that in 10 years time the landscape will have shifted. Once AOL was an internet giant. Remember how Friends Reunited was going to be the future of the internet?

But please don’t run screaming from the room. That would just be silly.

The lessons you’ve learned on the social web are portable and will stand you in good stead.

A few weeks back there was an excellent session for local government people at localgovcamp in Birmingham that looked at new social media platforms.

As a comms person who is doing more and more digital it was fascinating.

Rather than being just a check-list of which ones we should be using – and Pinterest, Google+ and Instagram were mentioned – the best discussion was around a broad approach rather than being platform specific.

As someone who managed to dodge the Google Wave boat that rather appeals to me. Google Wave, by the way, was an ill-fated Google product that arrived in a blaze of hype then died.

 6 ideas on approaching new platforms

1. Should I horizon scan? There’s no harm at all in being on the look out and have an ear to the ground. But life is too short.

2. Should I use it as me first? Use a new platform as yourself first. Kick the tyres. See how it flies. Make a few mistakes in your own name. Then think about it for the organisation.

3. Are there numbers? Ask yourself if there’s a sizable community that use it. And is that community people you’d like to connect with?

4. Will this platform do something for you or your team? Shane Dillon, who I rate enormously, pointed out that sometimes a platform isn’t about the big numbers. It’s about that little thing a platform can do. The free video conferencing on Google+ alone can make it an attractive proposition ahead of huge numbers.

5. Is there best practice? Have a look to see how others are using it. Be an ideas magpie.

6. Then launch quietly. Don’t enter into a platform in a blaze of publicity. Let it grow naturally. If it’s a success you’ll make your own waves.

7. Just relax.

That’s it really.

Creative commons credits

Deckchairs http://www.flickr.com/photos/danieldslee/6064681224/

Ice cream hut http://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/5812007896/sizes/l/