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We all hate rejection.

For me, there’s nothing worse than the following two-word reply to a carefully drafted pitch to a journalist: “I’ll pass.”

What’s worse, the sender of those emails may soon not be human at all.

Earlier this month, The New York Times reported that around a third of Bloomberg News’ published content uses some form of automated technology. They are not alone. Reuters, Washington Post, LA Times and the Associated Press, all use some sort of automated tool to file articles from company earnings reports to earthquake alerts and minor league baseball games. AI-powered robot journalists are not coming; they have already landed.

In January this year, Forbes announced that it was rolling out ‘Bertie,’ an AI-powered CMS tool which recommends topics, headlines and can even take a stab at a first draft of an article for a writer. This is interesting because it has a more immediate impact to the job of a PR professional – the art and science of pitching a story.

Bots could soon act as gatekeepers for journalists, much in the same way as we flacks do for companies. It is easy to envisage a future where publicists have to pitch a story to a chatbot first before gaining direct access to a journalist. If provided with enough data points and instruction, a bot could feasibly weed out stories which are not relevant or newsworthy, saving the journalist valuable time.  

Effective public relations people know how to pitch individual journalists. They know a journalist’s interests, both professionally and personally, whether they take well to short pitches or longer more detailed ones. A good comms person in future may also be judged on how well they can pitch a story to a bot. And even today, with the robots and algorithms increasingly have a say in editorial decisions.

Here’s how public relations officials can get ready.

Understand how a robot journalist works

It seems obvious, but a robot cannot be treated the same as a human. When I first started using chatbot functions from utility companies or mobile network providers, I would become frustrated at not receiving the right information. Today I have a better understanding of how the chatbot functions and the applicable words and phrases I need to use in order to get what I want from it. Leave the graduate-level vocabulary at home – today’s machines prefer basic words and syntax.

The same applies to robot journalists, who will be measuring against strict, predefined criteria. We need to understand the function of that robot, how it is programmed to identify a potential story, what data it is looking for and how it will use it. As more robot generated stories emerge and media outlets experiment with different use cases for the technology, we will slowly learn more about how these robots work.

Bring the data

Some of the biggest stories in recent years are triggered by misuse of data such as Cambridge Analytica, or crimes of stealing it such as Equifax. We live in a world driven by data and as such our profession is increasingly driven by it too. Push executives to provide the hard facts behind their sharply held positions. Machines will push us back towards evidence-based conclusions that sometimes can be hidden behind nonsense.

Get out and meet the human behind the robot wall

As we have become increasingly reliant on email and instant messaging, developing personal relationships with journalists has become more difficult. I even donated using the platform to a journalist’s chosen charity in order for them to receive a pitch of mine. (Despite all this, I still did not get a placement.)

According to that New York Times article, robots acting as gatekeepers will afford journalists more time to build and meet credible sources and focus on the investigative side of their jobs. For the public relations professional, to successfully pitch a journalist in the future, building a relationship offline may well hold the key, as so often has done in the past.

Automation in both journalism and public relations will become a big part of the industry. It will require us to work differently and even adapt our skill set and perhaps even retrain in certain aspects. I’m personally intrigued and excited by the potential of the technology and how different my job might be in 10 years time.

Sam Barber is a senior account manager in Cognito's New York office. He is not as yet a robot.