April 2024

How quaint to look back to the early days of developments like the fax machine, email, and smart phones when people sincerely thought, “We’ll finish our work more quickly and have more free time!” 

Instead, the ability to send a message instantaneously meant we’d come to expect instantaneous responses. With work in our purse or pocket or on the nightstand 24/7, we can connect from anywhere -- and we often do. Instead of more free time, we can work all of the time.

So you’ll forgive my initial skepticism of artificial intelligence (AI) as a new tool to improve our lives, including for communications professionals. Sure, we may begin to generate language for websites, social media, press releases, and presentations in a fraction of the time we used to need. Let's say we need 1/10th the time, what’s to stop us from generating 10x as much language? If we can generate an email in 1/5th the time we used to need, will our teams expect us to write 5 times as many emails? And that’s not to mention the environmental impact of searches, the bias baked into open source models, and the need for industry standards, including usage disclosures (though kudos to the Pulitzer Center for its AI Accountability Network).

Yet, amidst those valid and pressing concerns, I've begun to see rays of hope. Part of this comes from the webinar we co-hosted last month with the Public Interest Communications Educators Network. After a brief history of AI, this discussion with Alisa Miller, CEO of Pluralytics, Becca Bycott, founder and principal of Meeting the Moment Advisory, and Nicholas Wittenberg, Corporate Counsel and Senior Advisor for Legal Technology and Innovation at Armedia, dove into the ethics, accessibility, and impact of AI to help clarify who is responsible for protecting the public interest.

I encourage you to make time to watch the recording and hear their expert insights.  

In my work and conversations beyond the webinar, a theme has emerged. Take these three questions, for example:

  • What’s the best way to connect with a journalist to amplify news about your organization’s work? Develop a real relationship.
  • How can you thoughtfully, respectfully, and ethically share the story of someone impacted by an event or policy that needs to be changed? Develop a real relationship.
  • Need to onboard a new team member in a way that equips them to be effective and ensures they feel supported? Develop a real relationship.

In short, human relationships are essential to doing our jobs well, and the emotional intelligence of developing a real, personal, human bond is one thing Artificial Intelligence will never replace. Yes, we can use technology to remind us when to email people and help us make those messages compelling and grammatically correct, but we humans are the hearts and brains behind the curtain who must have the courage to connect with other humans — be they journalists, communities impacted by issues we seek to address, voters, or policymakers, to name a few. 

These are relationships we must build if we are to create a just, equitable, and peaceful shared future.

There is no question that, like the fax machine, email, and smart phones, AI is transforming our workdays. But AI also gives us an opportunity to make a tech-powered transformation a humane one. For example, with AI, we can skip over rough drafts and spend more time ensuring our final product better incorporates what we know of the people who need to read it — or whose stories are reflected in it. Because here’s the thing any experienced communications professional will tell you:

The world does not need to be inundated by more content. What the world does need is more QUALITY content.

And what people need to create quality content is quality time with other people — both professionally and personally. Connections between real people in a way only real people can have are the heart of effective communication. (For an example of a real human connection, here’s one of hundreds you’ll find from Story Corps.) 

Reflecting on recent conversations, including a discussion led by Aimee Rinehart of the Associated Press and Mikhael Simmonds, Executive Director at the Center for Community Media at CUNY, I see at least five ways teams can use AI to be more human:

1) IMPROVE ONBOARDING — Too many offices still take a sink-or-swim approach; they throw new hires into the deep end to “learn on the job” and “figure it out.” Now, regardless of the size of your team and HR department, AI can help develop solid onboarding materials and allow more time to talk with new team members on a regular basis to answer questions and get to know each other along the way.

2) DEVELOP AN LLM — Think of a Large Language Model (LLM) as a ChatGPT personalized to your organization; rather than pulling from the entire internet (the good, the bad, and the ugly), an LLM learns only what your organization wants it to learn. From a communications perspective, it can be a Style Guide with “only the good stuff” that ensures your team can find what they need and your final products consistently use your organizational voice. The time your communications team would have otherwise needed to finalize materials (e.g., adding Oxford commas throughout an 80-page report) can be used on more creative endeavors.

3) SPEND MORE TIME WITH COMMUNITIES WHOSE VOICES YOU ARE AMPLIFYING. There are myriad reasons organizations need to share deeply personal stories. For example, as a human rights lawyer, I helped prepare victims of torture to testify in court. In communications roles, we may share stories of people who have survived violence, lost everything in a hurricane, are experiencing homelessness, or other traumatic situations.

To share such stories is to take on serious responsibilities. Do your homework to fully understand those responsibilities before undertaking them. For a sense of where to start, join us on May 24 to hear from Tara Todras-Whitehill and see these five questions I drafted for GlobalGiving. (Also, remember you can “give people a platform” or “help them find their voice,” but you are never “giving someone a voice.”)

AI can help your team better understand the communities with whom you are working, develop a thoughtful, respectful, and ethical approach, and allow you more time to truly get to know the people entrusting you with their stories.

4) SPEND LESS TIME DEVELOPING MEDIA LISTS AND MORE TIME GETTING TO KNOW EVERYONE ON THEM. The media landscape has changed dramatically over the past several years. Journalists cover a wider array of topics from a shrinking number of newsrooms. Well-intentioned communications professionals may try to convince someone — anyone! — to cover a topic by sending a greater quantity of generic emails, but that’s precisely the wrong approach. As we'll discuss with in our July webinar on media engagement, effective pitches begin by identifying the right person (perhaps they work for one of the 425+ independent news organizations associated with the Institute for Nonprofit News?), getting to know them, and framing the issue you want to share as a compelling story. 

AI can help with that research and crafting so you can be as helpful as possible, both to the journalists you contact and to your cause.

5) ENJOY MORE FREE TIME. Earlier technology gave us a chance to shorten our work days — and we failed. As we shorten the time it takes to generate content, AI could be a second chance. I’ve noted above several areas where additional time can support building professional relationships, but perhaps there could be space for personal relationships as well? (We'll talk about the importance of preventing burnout with Krista Padgett in our October webinar.)

Personally, I’ve not yet begun to use AI in my own writing. Call it the equivalent of black-and-white instead of technicolor, but I prefer the mental journey of staring down a blank page and cobbling together a post “brick by brick” in my personal writing. For professional projects, I plan to explore Pluralytics in the weeks ahead and am happy to share how that goes along the way. (Drop me a line if you'd like to see another post about that.) I’m open to letting technology get me started if it means opening up more time for the things only we marvelous humans can do.

I said it before but it bears repeating: The world does not need to be inundated by more content. But we do need more quality content - and we do need each other.

- Piper Hendricks, Founder & CEO

Image generated by AI with a prompt along the lines of "a simple triangle using the colors red, blue, and yellow, that has one word along each side: Pathos, Logos, and Ethos." Clearly, I didn't get what I was seeking, but nevertheless found the design useful.

Also, I recognize the irony of talking about the latest technology on a website built on a limited platform. This reflects our limited budget as a newly founded organization. If you or someone you know would like to help us build a site that connects our programming with more people around the country - and world - let's talk: [email protected]  


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