A few weeks ago, a colleague shared an article about how generative AI could reduce billable hours in the PR industry. The author argued that AI’s ability to enhance productivity and efficiency poses a significant challenge to businesses that rely on hourly billings.
Disruption of this model could be problematic for many firms, especially considering this 2022 study by Gould+Partners. It shows the average PR agency staff member billed 1,685 hours at $250 per hour, resulting in $421,250 in revenue.
While some predict AI will reduce the number of billable hours, I actually believe it will have the opposite effect. Rather than decreasing billable hours, AI can help PR firms work more efficiently and effectively, which can increase the amount of billable work. Here’s why:
AI makes non-billable tasks more efficient
Essential non-billable tasks such as business development, general correspondence, email, and expense tracking are time-consuming, especially for boutique agencies without substantial operations staff. AI can streamline these tasks for these smaller, more nimble firms. This frees their PR professionals to spend more time on billable activities like strategic planning, client interactions, and creative campaign development, ultimately enhancing efficiency and agency revenue.
A working paper from the Harvard Business School found that generative AI can improve employee performance on some realistic consulting tasks. The study showed AI tools like ChatGPT-4 helped consultants complete some tasks 25% faster than other consultants who did not use AI. It also increased the performance of these tasks by more than 40% and task completion by more than 12%.
Less time spent on non-billable tasks translates to more billable hours.
PR Professionals are still creators
Generative AI is great at composing but bad at thinking. Even with AI, PR professionals are still curating information, asking the right questions, and directing the work. The product is the result of our knowledge and perspective, not AI’s large language models. AI is just another tool that we have at our disposal.
Rick Rubin writes in his book, The Creative Act: A Way of Being, “No matter what tools you use to create, the true instrument is you. And through you, the universe that surrounds us all comes into focus.”
We wouldn’t solely credit the camera for a masterpiece photograph. The same is true with AI in PR. The human orchestrating the strategy, framing the content, and developing the product remains the true creator.
Creating strategy and content still necessitates the time and attention of an individual (or multiple individuals), who must understand and think deeply about a client’s objectives, market dynamics, competition, positioning, story evolution, and more. This complex strategic thinking will continue to translate to ample billable work.
Relationships drive the work
The heart of professional services is the art of cultivating and sustaining human relationships. Regardless of advances in AI, it cannot emulate the trust, rapport, and nuanced understanding we foster. If anything, I believe new AI tools will allow us to be better prepared and have more time to engage in meaningful human discussions.
AI Can’t Navigate Complexity and Ethics
Public relations and consulting are laden with ethical questions and intricate decisions. PR professionals must decide how and when to present information, how much information to disclose, and how to avoid perpetuating stereotypes and biases. While AI has shown promise in data analysis and preliminary decision-making, it often oversimplifies situations that require nuanced human understanding.
While AI offers impressive benefits and reshapes the landscape of professional services, it cannot overshadow the unparalleled value human professionals bring. In the end, the work of people using new tools will define the future of these industries.