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Can artificial intelligence technology help you research content ideas? Yes. Develop copy for a news release or marketing email? Probably. How about a blog post on a complex research breakthrough, a compelling profile of a donor or engaging stories about successful alumni? Unlikely.

These are questions higher education marketers and communicators are no doubt contemplating in the wake of ChatGPT, an AI tool that went viral after American firm OpenAI launched it in November. Available online as a free prototype, this sophisticated new chat bot can write stories, compose music, answer test questions, simulate human conversation, produce computer code and play simple games. And thanks to advanced machine learning algorithms, it performs these functions within seconds, producing results that are often highly accurate and articulate.

These immense powers are driving postsecondary schools worldwide to rethink how they teach in order to address cheating and protect academic integrity. But for university and college marcomm departments, ChatGPT may allow you to work more effectively and efficiently—if you use it wisely.

Harnessing ChatGPT’s Strengths

ChatGPT can automate some routine aspects of your work—among them, research you conduct to shape your strategy and content (although it’s important to know it has limited knowledge of the world after 2021). Say you’re working on marketing copy for your institution and want to differentiate it among others in your country—the tool can produce a list of schools distinguished in the same discipline. I asked ChatGPT to identify the top U.S. engineering schools, and it provided 18 examples that closely match U.S. News & World Reports 2023 list. In the same vein, it can track down specific statistics with their sources—it was able to provide me with survey data (albeit from 2020) on the rate of Instagram usage among 18-year-olds in the U.S.

For writing, you can feed ChatGPT specific prompts to generate an article title, topic outline, even the entire piece. The tool can develop starting-point content for relatively straightforward materials such as a press release, dean’s message or LinkedIn post. I asked it to write a news release about a digital marketing program launching at New York University. It quickly spat out a five-paragraph draft covering how students will learn from industry experts about SEO, social media marketing and email marketing and “gain hands-on experience through internships and real-world projects,” and it included a sample dean’s quote. It also included a headline, place line and contact info section and boilerplate “About NYU” paragraph that closely matches NYU’s own About section.

While the copy is cliché, the shell of a presser with relevant language and document formatting can save time for a busy communications officer. It will also prompt them to think about the key points they need to flesh out. And with the autopilot tasks eliminated, the work becomes more meaningful, with more opportunities to be creative.

The tool can also help you optimize your copy for search engines by identifying your topic’s most relevant keywords. As well, you can input text you have written and ask it to check for grammar, spelling and punctuation mistakes. It will produce clean copy and explain the changes it made—though maybe only a human will catch oversights, such as the unnecessary hyphen in “rapidly-evolving” in the newser.

Understanding ChatGPT’s Weaknesses

What ChatGPT cannot do is replicate the strategic, analytical and creative competencies of human communicators and marketers.

It’s obvious but worth noting that high-level decision-making about content strategy, tactics, themes and formats for marcomm projects requires the talents of a skilled and experienced human. AI also can’t interpret the implications of your faculty’s latest research breakthrough or connect the dots between different trends and issues for a conference presentation or newspaper op-ed. And when it’s time to inspire new graduates with a president’s convocation speech filled with personal stories, reflections about the academic year and tips for future success, it’s a human, not a bot, who will deliver.

Much of the same applies to stories for a community magazine, alumni newsletter or donor report—especially when people need to be interviewed. A writer brings their established storytelling and interviewing expertise, authentic voice, life experience, and cultural knowledge to create original content that captures a topic’s essence. Their ability to craft narratives with subtle details, illuminating anecdotes, emotional depth and impactful quotes is what allows your more nuanced marcomm materials to shine.

It’s also important to consider how AI writing tools can affect your institution’s reputation. Postsecondary schools generally strive to ensure their marcomm materials are sensitive to their stakeholders’ diverse identities and to equity, diversity and inclusion norms. ChatGPT occasionally produces content with factual inaccuracies and reasoning errors, or that is sexist or racist. No higher education marketer wants to jeopardize their institution’s reputation by publishing misinformation or offensive content.

Ultimately, bots will not replace your school’s marcomm team, but they may augment it. ChatGPT can help with conducting research, generating content ideas and cleaning up and optimizing copy. But it’s your human marketers and communicators who know how to define your strategy and tactics, write your institution’s engaging stories about complex topics, bring color and flair to narratives, ensure content aligns with your brand and values, and prevent inaccurate and biased content.

As principal of Higher Ed Communications, Sharon Aschaiek provides universities and colleges with content advising, writing and editing services to help them promote their successes, engage with key stakeholders and achieve organizational goals.

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