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Can ChatGPT Write Better Press Releases for Municipalities?

A new Zencity tool uses artificial intelligence to help PIOs and other city officials create and structure not only releases but social media posts and other communications. The general idea is to save time.

Closeup of a robotic hand typing on a keyboard.
Writing an essay or even a blog post can feel like a slog — just think back to your school days.

But as artificial intelligence starts spreading through state and local government, civic engagement startup Zencity is using the technology to potentially make it easier for officials to craft press releases and other resident communications.

The company’s newly launched ChatGPT tool doesn’t take humans out of the writing process.

Rather, it’s designed to start the writing process and provide the scaffolding for, say, a municipal release about a crime wave or a social media post about a road closure. Those communications are among the main ways civic officials keep in touch with constituents, and are almost certain to take on more importance as more local newspapers close up shop.

“If you think about the job of a busy (public information officer), this could save hours of time,” Michael Simon, vice president of strategic partnerships for Israel-based Zencity, told Government Technology.

He added that many city managers serve as their own PIOs, potentially increasing the value of this AI-powered tool.

Here’s the essence of how the new tool works, based on a recent demonstration from Simon and Ido Ivri, the company’s co-founder and CTO: Based on prompts built in the back end — in a way, PR templates — the product writes what amounts to a first draft, complete with potential quotes from officials.

They showed how the tool could build a press release about high levels of thefts of Kia and Hyundai automobiles in many cities. The tool created a communication that included the basic details of the problem and how officials are responding, complete with a “quote” from the mayor. That quote could be — and probably would be — replaced with a real statement from the actual mayor, and the release in general would likely undergo editing and revision from human beings, whether the PIO, city manager or someone else.

The idea is to use ChatGPT to save time getting a start on the communication — the start is often the most time-consuming, anxiety-inducing part of writing — and providing a common narrative structure.

“It changes unstructured information into structured information,” Ivri told Government Technology.

“It’s not going to replace someone’s job,” Simon said.

About 50 clients are now using the tool, which is emerging from beta testing, the executives said. Those clients range from small towns to at least one major U.S. city, they said.

Feedback from those early users will help guide changes and improvements to the tool, Ivri said, and it could eventually generate automated reports based on community surveys, for instance.
Thad Rueter writes about the business of government technology. He covered local and state governments for newspapers in the Chicago area and Florida, as well as e-commerce, digital payments and related topics for various publications. He lives in Wisconsin.