By Sam Spiller, Senior Tech Writer at Clockwork  

It’s become cliché to declare artificial intelligence (AI) as the next big ‘disruptor’ (though I hate that word), but it’s very much appropriate. Every industry is now looking at how they can integrate the technology into their operations and business strategy. That includes marketing and PR, whose AI use cases extend from client service to content creation.  

According to an internal survey by the International Public Relations Network (IPRN), 83% of respondents reported that AI plays a role in their business, which is mostly being used for content creation (31%), social media engagement (21%), media monitoring (19%), and data analytics (16%). Additionally, the main benefits of AI that respondents listed included an increase in efficiency, support in research, and reduction of staff workload.  

This is insightful, but it only paints half a picture. I have previously written about how we writers need to define our relationship with AI, but that discussion extends to our clients and what they expect from the creative process in terms of applying new technologies. And, given current attitudes towards AI in media, that’s not a straightforward discussion to have.  

Contractual obligations

Up until now, integrating AI-enabled technologies into content production and other marketing activities has primarily been an exploratory exercise – an art department testing the capabilities of image generators, a copywriting team seeing how chatbots can help them research complicated topics – basically dipping toes into the water. And indeed, AI is now becoming the centrepiece of entire campaigns. Earlier this year, Audi South Africa launched an AI-powered ad campaign that fused generated content to showcase its lineup of special edition models.  

Can these programs help streamline content creation? This would be a huge benefit for creatives and their clients, right? Right?  

There are already signs that using AI to create the next big campaign is not something every client is on board with. Excellent reporting from Ad Age details how brands are demanding stronger AI safeguards in their contracts with agencies, going so far as not allowing them to use the technology in any way without prior authorisation. This stems from brands not wanting to compromise their intellectual property (i.e. brand data being used to train a competitor’s AI model), or publishing content that carries the imprint of another brand’s creative.  

As one agency CEO puts it, there is “a juxtaposition of agencies ramping up their AI knowledge and usage, and then clients clamping it down”.  

The concerns that clients may voice are very valid. Generative AI programs are still very much in their infancy. They may be good enough to be leveraged at the concept stage (“Here’s a rough idea of what we want to put on billboards”), and indeed AI assistant tools can be reliably used to augment tasks, such as touching up images or summarising text. However, still-lingering questions surrounding copyright and the data used to power AI/ML models can lead to brands declaring the end result to be, at best, inauthentic, and at worst, stolen.  

We already have high-profile examples of this exact scenario. In March, sportswear brand Under Armour came under fire for a new ad that was billed as the “first AI-powered sports commercial”. Creatives accused the brand of reusing their work in the final product without acknowledging their contribution.  

This is an incident that nobody, neither an agency nor a client, wants to see happen following the launch of a new campaign.  

What the audience thinks 

While brands are reportedly putting in guardrails to limit the use of AI, there is the question of the perception of its use with the people who will, ultimately, engage with and consume the content it generates. The argument that AI is a democratising force for creativity is a highly contentious one, and it’s not going to end anytime soon. So, I won’t attempt to unpack it here. But what we can unpack are people’s reactions to AI’s creative output.  

The most publicised examples of this are coming from Hollywood. Recently released Films such as Late Night with the Devil and Civil War have suffered bad press for using AI-generated shots in both the movies themselves and their promotional material. While the use of AI has become prolific in the industry, there is a hesitancy to openly admit that proliferation. As VFX industry veteran David Stripinis puts it, “It’s a PR problem more than a tech problem.”  

Disclosure is a very important element when publishing AI-generated material, a fact that’s been demonstrated by entities who are revealed to have put out such material. After being queried by Futurism over public articles that appeared to have been written by non-existent writers with computer-generated headshots, Sports Illustrated pulled all the articles and fired the company that had provided them. (Sports Illustrated denied the report that the articles themselves were written by an AI tool.)  

The optics of using AI without telling anyone can seemingly result in reputational scrutiny. Again, that’s not a conversation any brand wants to have at the end of a long workday.  

Caught in a t(AI)lspin

Let’s be frank. There is only so much use in trying to have a conversation about AI at any given point in time. The daily newsfeed is moving so fast thanks to a new innovation, concern, or talking point practically every day. Google’s recent announcement that it will use AI to return summarised responses to search engine queries has big implications for the industry, and a new bill introduced in the United States Congress that will force companies to reveal the copyrighted material they use to train AI models has HUGE implications.  

There are also concerns regarding ethics hanging over the local PR landscape. According to the 2024 State of Ethics report published by the Public Relations and Communications Association (PRCA), PR practitioners across Africa have varied levels of concern towards the risks and limitations of relying on AI technologies. These findings indicate a present awareness and emphasise the need to proactively manage AI-related challenges in the industry.  

What is certain is that brands need to confront the question of AI and how it factors into their marketing and PR strategies (or rather, how it helps achieve them). The same goes for the agencies they task with carrying out those strategies. The media and PR landscape is shifting rapidly, and it’s up to everyone to get a solid foothold.