Whether you see AI as friend or foe to the media industry, there are numerous ways automation, machine learning and artificial intelligence tools can be used by publishers to improve the business. From suggesting headlines to generating reports and streamlining processes, the applications – many of which have been around for some years – are endless.

The tools and tech may not be new, but the expectation is now that businesses who aren’t exploring AI will be left behind. But there are many pitfalls, from fear of job losses to staff using AI beneath the radar. Whatever approach publishers take, leadership needs to be clear and decisive on the boundaries.

I spoke to Media Consultant Ian Betteridge about the role media leaders can play in bringing AI into their organisations. Betteridge has been editor of tech magazine MacUser, launched Alphr.com while at Dennis Publishing, and most recently has been at Bauer Media Group leading an internal business transformation project focused on delivering new tech platforms, structures and processes to Bauer’s content teams.

Here is his advice for executives looking at the potential for AI in their businesses, and how they can get other leaders and staff on board with initiatives.

1: Start at the top

Even though senior leaders may not be au fait with the technical details of AI technologies, any introduction in a business needs to come from the top. “The first question you’re thinking about as a CEO would be, do my executive team know enough about this to actually work on this, to direct their team, to lead whatever change they’re going to have to go through?” Betteridge asked. “We’re always really reluctant to look at exec teams and say, actually, we need to start with you guys first.”

Betteridge emphasised that leaders need to understand these technologies, and particularly how they impact on ways of working. “Quite often, when it gets to a certain level, everyone just assumes that everyone else knows, or everybody else can just find it all out themselves,” he pointed out.

2: Bring in full-time focus

For publishers who are serious about having AI make a difference to their company, there should be someone on the senior leadership team championing it. Betteridge advised that this is a full-time role with responsibility for an AI strategy, “because if it’s a little bit of his job and a little slice of her job, nobody is going to end up properly driving it, and you need to move fast.”

That doesn’t have to necessarily end up being focused on tactics and details like training courses, but more about the strategy of rolling it out across the business. Betteridge sees this person as a visionary, in the sense that they need to be able to understand the requirements and the technology, but also how it can be applied to different parts of the business.

“We talk a lot about journalism and how [AI] is applied to that,” he noted. “But actually, there are really clear, strong benefits to be gained everywhere, like querying data, spotting trends, creating reports, summarising traffic, and more.”

3: Get people on board

One of the qualities that this person, or anyone in a leadership role implementing AI should have is the ability to bring everyone into the conversation.  “As well as that understanding of the tech and the understanding of the broader parts of the business, you also need to know how you’re actually going to win people over. That’s one of the qualities that is often left behind,” Betteridge said.

One framework which Betteridge advises to help is the ADKAR model of change management; something he’s written a more detailed guide about when it comes to AI. This model consists of five stages: Awareness, Desire, Knowledge, Ability, and Reinforcement. Each stage focuses on a different aspect of the change process, from creating a clear vision and generating buy-in, to acquiring the necessary skills and sustaining the change over time.

Skill in this area is vital because although the technology itself is important, it’s ultimately about bringing everyone else along as well. “If you’ve got the tech and no business understanding, no understanding of how to manage change, then you’re still going to struggle because ultimately it’s a change management project,” Betteridge cautions.

4: Find the champions

However great a leader is in place for AI implementation, no one person is going to have all the ideas for how it can be used. As the process develops, a publisher should look at who the other potential enthusiasts are across the business. 

“Once you’ve got someone leading this, the next question is, who are our champions?” Betteridge asked. “Who are the people who know enough about tech and trying out new things, or influencers within their teams, who can get people’s buy-in to actually accept this as a technology?”

These roles are all the more important in a creative business. Betteridge noted that top down ‘imposition’ of policies and tools doesn’t work in industries like publishing. Those seeing the most success are companies like Immediate and William Reed who have company-wide AI days, encourage openness and experimentation, and AI champions boards of people from different disciplines across the business.

5: Have clear guidance

Transparency is crucial with AI initiatives; not just with audiences, but staff as well. Many publishers have released statements or manifestos for how they will – and won’t – use AI, Immediate Media being just one of them.

“The first thing we wanted to do is be really clear in the business what our stance was for using it; what we would and wouldn’t do,” Roxanne Fisher, Immediate’s Director of Digital Content Strategy told Digital Content Next. “We really want to stay up to date and understand it, and understand how it’s going to change everything, but we also want to really maintain the trust of the brands.”

Betteridge echoed this in his advice to media leaders. “You’ve got to put guidelines in place from the off,” he emphasised. “You’ve got to stop people thinking that this is always going to be a threat to their jobs. Because it’s a threat to the boring bits of your job, it’s not a threat to the creative bits of your job. 

“In fact, creativity and expertise and all the things that traditional journalism values are going to be the most important thing to see us through the next five years or so.”

6: Use ‘freed-up time’ wisely

The final question I posed to Betteridge was what approach senior leaders should take in the best case scenario, where successful implementation of AI tools frees up staff time through efficiencies. The natural inclination might be to make cuts, which won’t enthuse anyone to further experiment.

“If AI allows efficiencies of 20-30%, you want to focus on development,” he explained. “Development is something that teams habitually don’t spend enough time doing…and when you’re in a position like this where we’re going through a big technology, cultural and business change, you need to give people time to go and find out more, and work out how it impacts on them.”

“We’ve now got the opportunity to do more to develop our teams than we’ve ever had before,” Betteridge concluded. “It futureproofs you. If you’ve got teams that are actually learning more about technology, and learning about different ways of doing things… then you’re going to be better prepared for whatever the future throws at us.” 

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