PR in the Age of NewsBots: a Pitched Battle

In the (uncomfortably) near future, a far greater portion of news stories — the recap of yesterday’s game, the earnings report, the natural disaster, last night’s board meeting — will be, pardon the expression, fake news. They will not be inaccurate, but they will be fake, insofar as they will be assembled and written by newsbots.

Newsrooms are all in on robot journalism. Since 2013, AP has experimented with artificial intelligence (AI). More recently, the Washington Post had a bot join its team in covering the 2016 Olympics in Rio. For the most part, newsbots do a workmanlike job and will play an increasingly large role in the news organization, as the savings on staff can be the difference between staying afloat and going out of business. But it’s obviously not a great development for reporters who are being forced to cede their well-worn beats to algorithms that are accurate, always on time, not paid for overtime, never depressed or hung over and are unflappable under even the most intense deadline pressure.

The rise of newsbots will pose direct challenges to PR people as well. As they crowd out journalists, we’ll have fewer contacts to pitch, until it becomes clear how one pitches a bot (more on this below). If bots can handle a standard AP-style news story, surely they can be engineered to handle a press release, right? The question then arises, “Can an algorithm be programmed to pitch?”

What Can be Automated Will be Automated

First, the bad news. As a general rule, what can be automated, will eventually be automated. Now, for the really bad news. The technology is already here — the data extraction and AI processing technologies that are currently used to create news stories should be able to reverse engineer pitches. But, the real question is, “Can it generate pitches that will get a reporter’s attention?”

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