by Yvonne Brown
It’s very likely many of the news stories you skimmed on
your phone today while waiting for the kettle to boil or riding the bus, were
written by a robot.
The recap of yesterday’s game, the financial earnings
statement, the report on a natural disaster, or a summary of last night’s council
meeting — may all have been put together by artificial intelligence instead of
a human journalist. Newsrooms around the world facing mounting pressure to do
more with less are increasingly turning to newsbots to help generate the
data-rich, constant news coverage consumers are demanding.
These bots are online software applications that automate simple and repetitive tasks. The Washington Post uses a newsbot called Heliograf. Editors there create narrative templates for stories, including key phrases that account for a variety of potential outcomes (from an election for example, “Republicans retained control of the House” to “Democrats regained control of the House”). They then hook Heliograf up to any source of structured data. The software identifies the relevant information, matches it with the corresponding phrases in the template, merges them, and then publishes different versions of the story across a variety of platforms. The system can also alert reporters to any anomalies it finds in the data so they can investigate.
USA Today’s Wibbitz creates short videos by condensing news
articles into a script, stringing together a selection of images or video
footage, and sometimes adding narration with a synthesized voice. Reuters’
algorithmic prediction tool News Tracer helps journalists gauge the integrity
of a tweet. BuzzFeed’s BuzzBot collects information from on-the-ground sources
at news events. One of the first news algorithm’s was the LA Times’ Quakebot,
which began writing stories
on seismic activity in 2014. Interestingly, the story has a byline,
but it’s not for a writer but rather the program’s designer.
In June 2018, 69 per cent of media leaders surveyed by the Reuters
Institute for the Study of Journalism use some type of artificial intelligence (AI)
in their newsrooms.
The pluses of bots for resource challenged newsrooms are
many. AI frees time-strapped reporters from routine tasks allowing them to
concentrate on more in-depth work. When
there is a lot of complex data to sift, bots maybe able to get through more
volume more accurately. Bots can provide the kind of hyperlocal journalism that
audiences are interested in but few publishers can afford. Finally, there are
all the advantages of AI personalising content, improving customer relations,
and supporting journalists in discovering new stories and managing their
But bots come with serious downsides and not just for the
journalists whose jobs they may potentially usurp. Audiences spoon fed their
news by bots in snippets of facts and figures aren’t getting the full picture.
The world is complicated, complex stories require in-depth analysis, careful
writing and sensitive editing to be properly understood. Finally, too much
personalization of a reader or viewer’s newsfeed may dangerously narrow their
The Canadian Public Relations Society’s White
Paper on the future of PR noted the rise in AI was also affecting the PR profession:
“The rapid advance of artificial intelligence (AI) presents a near-term future in which software will increasingly be used to create content; content marketing will be driven by algorithms; bots will manage public enquiries; and decisions of channels and tactics will increasingly be automated, driven in real time by public responses and behaviours.”
For those of us in public relations, the issue is finding
new ways of cutting through ever increasing amounts of surface information
clutter to cultivate real, constructive relationships between humans.
It’s hard to pitch a story to a bot. If newsrooms are
changing, then so is PR.
by Yvonne Brown
The other night I was watching Hasan Minhaj on Netflix and picked up some fascinating tidbits about a staggeringly successful, globally influential company I’d never even heard of. In this show about the economics of streetwear , one of fashion’s hottest trends, I learned the brand Supreme is both super hip and maybe selling out.
Supreme, which makes t-shirts, hoodies and various accessories, originated in 1994 at a New York City skateboard shop. It caters to young males, highlighting skateboarding and hip hop. Supreme’s website (link) says it has a unique identity and attitude that embodies young counter culture, defying convention, while offering quality and authenticity.
At the centre of the Supreme phenomenon is its box logo.Supreme often melds this logo with symbols from other popular artists and brands like Jackson Pollack, Nike, Levi’s, Louis Vuitton and Coke. This process of “lifting” or appropriating others’ work has long been a fixture of street culture. Supreme admits the concept for its basic red and white logo was taken from anti-consumerist artist Barbara Kruger “I Shop therefore I am” [photo]
Check out the cheeky lookbook Farmland Foods put together in response to Supreme hijacking their pastoral logo.Ironically the company that built an empire using other people’s work sues when it happens to them.
While Supreme’s business model is built around scarcity, last year the brand was valued at one billion dollars. That’s a heck of a lot of hoodies! Supreme releases a large number of different products, but only a relatively small number of each one. They don’t do big advertising campaigns or large scale press releases just short announcements on their social channels. Their message is then amplified across social media, especially Instagram, where celebrities, fashion-forward influencers, and collectors create an echo chamber of excitement. Once these items are released, some can sell out in a matter of seconds before emerging on resale websites, marked up 1,000% or more. (BBC, Capital)
“The beauty of fashion is that it’s conspicuous; everyone knows what you’re wearing, so if you’re wearing a scarce, fashionable product, you get the benefit of knowing privately that you own something scarce, but also the benefit of being able to show other people that you can own a scarce product. “ explains Adam Alter, the author of Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked.
Alter was defining the hype beast and hype beasts are very critical of brands that compromise whatever cool essence they have sought to cultivate.
“Once a brand loses exclusivity, people shy away from it,” says Walter Harvin, editor-in-chief of Uncommon magazine, a publication for young artists in New York City.
And now we have the Carlyle Group, a huge investment banking corporation that buys and flips all kinds of companies for profit – the ultimate reseller. Carlyle, who is involved in everything from donuts and hamburgers to oil drilling and fighter jets bombing Yemen — not at all cool or ‘authentic’ – has quietly bought out roughly half of Supreme. It’s believed Carlyle will try to grow Supreme’s business quickly. When that happens, large numbers of ‘scarce’ t-shirts and hoodies could flood the market. Does that mean Supreme’s reputation will then collapse?
Maybe the Supreme/Carlyle collaboration isn’t a mistake in marketing or media relations, it will undoubtedly make its creators and purveyors a great deal of money in the short term. But it’s definitely looking like greed is all set to kill the golden beast. If you build your reputation on being hip and exclusive, selling out to a not-at-all hip, monster corporation may just kill your street cred and your reputation.
Mind you, if a middle aged lady like me is talking about it, Supreme has probably drifted pretty far from hype already.
Yesterday was International Women’s Day, a a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. So in honour of that, today’s blog post is about how to create messages aimed at women. And a hint, it’s not just to write them in pink ink.
(When I was uploading the pink Lego photo, my son said: “It’s so stupid that they think just because they made it pink it’s for girls.” Very smart, my son! He might be guest blogging for me soon.)
Bic Pen for Females
In 2012, the internet blew up a little in response to a new line of pens from Bic called the Bic for Her. It’s basically a regular Bic Pen but in various pink, purple and mint green colours, and marketed at women. Because, one assumes, women were tired of men stealing their blue or red pens and wanted one they could keep for themselves. It boasts features like “elegant design – just for her!” and a “thin barrel to fit a women’s hand.”
In case you don’t understand why this is a bad idea, let me explain in easy words. By making a pen for only women, you are implying that the pens you made before were only for men, or perhaps that women were unable to use the ‘men’ pens, or that if a woman used a ‘man’ pen she would do it wrong. Getting the words of your messages right is incredibly important, but the words you select also have implied meanings that must be considered.
Reviews and news coverage of the pens showed that consumers were seeing the implied messages of this marketing idea. Here are just a handful of the hundreds of scathing reviews posted on Amazon for the Bic for Her pens:
“Why would anyone even consider inventing this? Are normal pens not suited for women?…This pen is made specially for women because we cannot use normal pens correctly, I presume. This is why gender equality is not present in our current society.”
“I lent this to my brother so he could do all the math that was too hard for my lady brain, but as soon as he touched it, he… turned into a cloud of sparkles! These pens are too feminine for anyone other than women to use! Keep them away from your loved ones, or any man.”
“I had despaired of ever being able to write down recipes in a permanent manner, though my men-folk assured me that I ‘shouldn’t worry yer pretty little head.’ But, AT LAST! Bic, the great liberator, has released a womanly pen that my gentle baby hands can use without fear of unlady-like callouses and bruises. Thank you, Bic!”
“I bought these pens as my ovaries dictated, but when I took them out of their packaging and tried to use them to note my car’s mileage they told me to get back into the kitchen where I belonged.”
Now I love a pink or purple pen as much as anyone, but by marketing these pens directly for women, Bic created implied messaging that didn’t paint their company in a favourable light, especially not with those who care about gender equality and feminism. Pens are pens, and you don’t need to be a certain gender to use certain pens. We’re not talking about the fit of work boots or underwear. If Bic felt inclined to sell more pink and purple pens, they could have simply sold pink and purple pens, without perpetuating gender stereotypes that most women in this decade thought were in the past.
Lego, take note.
Asking the public for their thoughts can be a great way of creating meaningful two–way engagement for your organization. It can also be a good marketing tool to use a contest to name something new, bringing your organization to the attention of the public and getting them involved in the company. But if you haven’t thought through what you’ll get when you ask, you could get disastrous results.
I’ve already shown you how British Gas messed up their attempt at engagement with a badly timed Twitter town hall, and how the Northwest Territories of Canada asked the public if they should be renamed and almost ended up being called “Bob.” Here is my final example in this series from my home province of British Columbia.
Proving that you need to consider the impact of engagement as part of your entire communications strategy is the story of BC Ferries. In a stroke of ‘genius’, the ferry corporation asked the public to suggest a name for its new class of boats. For another company, this might have been a strong campaign, but the BC public was pretty ticked off at a series of price hikes and service cuts by BC Ferries, so this engagement left the organization wide open to parody.
In May 2015, the ferry corporation opened a contest for new names for three intermediate class ferries, and offered a $500 prize. After only a few days, the public had submitted a lot of suggestions that, well, didn’t meet the organization’s naming criteria. Some of the ideas submitted (and talked about on social media!):
- Spirit of The WalletSucker
- Queen of No Other Choice
- The Spirit of Unfettered Capitalism
- Queen of the Cash Cow
- HMS Overdraft
- Coastal Fair Hike
- Spirit of Bad WiFi
- HMS Cantafford
- MV Sailing Wait
- Queen of the Damned
- Coastal Desperation
The Vancouver Sun noted that this contest was a fascinating peek into how the public viewed the ferry corporation:
…interesting to muse on how a public that once doted on a ferry system that helped define its collective identity has since arrived at the place from which it now sees it as a service to be mercilessly mocked as a symbol of over-priced ineptitude.
The marketing folks at the ferry corporation have been keeping a stiff upper lip over the keel-hauling, hoping the publicity will attract greater attention to the contest, a Twitter-era spin on that hoary print media proverb that there’s no such thing as bad publicity and it doesn’t matter what they print about you as they spell your name right.
In the end, the contest proceeded and the new ferries were called Salish Orca, Salish Eagle and Salish Raven. But since so many British Columbians saw this contest as another way to air their beefs about high prices and service problems, it was not a good exercise in engagement for BC Ferries.
BC Ferries should have found a way to recover from this mockery and take control of the messages coming out of this contest. They could have used some of the complaints in an announcement of a change in service, such as a new onboard menu, or improved WIFI service, showing that they were responsive to public opinion.
Or they could have gone in on the joke, gently poking fun at themselves by compiling their own list of top ten suggestions they would not be using. BC Ferries is not known for their sense of humour, but this might have been a lost opportunity to show a sense of deprecation that may have improved how the public responded to the organization. Instead, it was just a fizzle of a contest where those outside the organization, instead of BC Ferries themselves, controlled the messaging.
Today’s lesson: If your operations are not in the public favour, yet you open yourself up to very public input, get ready to laugh along with the commentary or have messaging ready that can respond to whatever the public throws at you.
We ask the public what they think all the time. It’s good practice to engage with our audiences, to learn from our customers and stakeholders, and to ensure that communications is not just one-way, but is truly two-way communications, a best practice in the PR industry. But sometimes, asking the public what they think can have unintended consequences, and you have to be prepared for what might happen. I recently shared the example of British Gas’ disastrous foray into a Twitter open house due to bad timing and poor preparation. Here’s a Canadian example from pre-Twitter time.
Way back when, in 1996 the Northwest Territories in Canada was going to be split into two territories. One of the new territories would be called Nunavut, but the name of the other territory was not yet decided.
A question was put to the public of whether the remaining territory should have a new name. People could submit suggestions by phone, fax, letter and e-mail. The public had some strong opinions, but some jokesters proposed calling it “Bob”, and “Bob” soon took off as the second most popular proposed name. Really. There’d be the Yukon, Nunavut and Bob.
After all, the proponents said:
“Government would no longer be ‘big brother,’ because “Bob’s your uncle!” and “Lots of neat official stuff would be immediately available to the new government — the official sport could be bobsledding, the official hairdo could be ‘the Bob,’ the RCMP could be renamed ‘Bobbies,’ etc.”.
The proponents were after a good laugh, but soon it had to be taken seriously. The government asking the question had failed to take into account the fact that the public loved using the new online tool of email. And they hadn’t limited the ask to NWT residents, so thousands of people outside of NWT started adding their votes, voting “Bob” near to the top spot.
Needless to say, the Territories were not renamed Bob, the contest didn’t proceed, and to this day, they are still the Northwest Territories.
Had the government limited participation in the poll, better understood how technologies would be used, set stronger rules about the kinds of names that could be proposed, or even had a cheeky response to explain why Bob couldn’t be the new name (For example, “We can’t call it Bob because it doesn’t translate well to Inuktikut“), this attempt to engage with NWT citizens might have been less of a joke.
Today’s lesson: When you ask a digitally connected public what they think, be sure you can either take a joke or be prepared with messaging in case what they think isn’t helping your cause.