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The Ethical Frontier: Reimagining PR in the Age of AI

Published on April 9, 2018, at 3:13 p.m.
by Skylar Spencer.

Spam filters, Google Maps traffic predictions, mobile check deposits, voice-to-text. Other than being a part of everyday life, what do all of these features have in common? Artificial intelligence. AI has been infused into our vehicles, living rooms, mobile devices and more, simplifying and exciting the everyday life. But there’s something buried beneath all of its wonder and glory — something that’s growing and spreading like a newly planted seed — and that something is a problem, a public relations problem.

Photo by Flickr.

With any new technology there’s going to be a series of questions that arise, and in terms of AI, we’re starting to see a recurring theme: ethics. Can we trust AI to honor our privacy rights? Will AI put humans in harm’s way? How can we be sure that AI’s system is unbiased?

Most people assume these questions solely apply to those in the tech industry. The harsh reality, however, is that public relations is a data-driven field — whether you’re in health care, public affairs, corporate, or sports and entertainment — you can’t escape the pitfalls of technology, and that’s OK.

Instead, let’s thoroughly examine the ethical pitfalls of AI, creating a dialogue about how communications professionals can best prepare for them, and how we can successfully drive innovation — instead of innovation driving us.

The great dilemma
Three years ago, computer scientists at Carnegie Mellon University discovered a chilling reality of Google ads: Women were less likely than men to be shown ads for highly paid jobs. In fact, male users were shown the high-paying job ads about 1,800 times, compared to female users who saw those ads about 300 times.

The IBM article “Building trust in AI” examined machine bias:

“Machines get biased because the training data they’re fed may not be fully representative of what you’re trying to teach them,” said IBM Chief Science Officer for Cognitive Computing Guru Banavar. “And it could be not only unintentional bias due to a lack of care in picking the right training dataset, but also an intentional one caused by a malicious attacker who hacks into the training dataset that somebody’s building just to make it biased.”

This is one example of the great dilemma: How can we trust AI to objectively operate? How can we instill human values in this technology?

The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics identified a list of issues with ethical relevance in AI, including transparency and privacy, technical safety and bias in data. Not only do these ethical challenges exist, but they also affect everyone.

Photo by Wikimedia Commons.

Jon Iwata, former senior vice president and chief brand officer for IBM, said because of “the phenomenon of data,” AI affecting the practice of communications and business for the world is inevitable.

“It’s inevitable, and it’s because there isn’t a single profession — you could be a doctor, you could be a communicator, you could be an engineer, you could be a lawyer — that is not being overrun by data to do their job more effectively,” Iwata said.

Iwata believes the questions surrounding AI are legitimate, tending to come in three categories: jobs, ethics and societal threat.

Many people have already speculated that AI will threaten certain jobs, but Iwata noted that there’s a difference between jobs and occupations, and history has shown that a very small number of occupations actually disappear when it comes to new technology. While a small number of occupations will go away, Iwata emphasized that new occupations will be created in the age of AI.

Iwata explained that AI in terms of ethics involves a lack of transparency and control, so perhaps to combat this fear of job loss, PR professionals should focus on differentiating the myths and reality of AI.

The intersection of AI and ethics
Dr. Shannon A. Bowen, a PR ethics researcher and professor at the University of South Carolina, cited a famous quote by Saint Augustine: “When regard for the truth has been broken down or even slightly weakened, all things will remain doubtful.”

Dr. Bowen said, “First and foremost, ethics always has to be centered on honesty. Any type of communication that we do, whether it’s public relations — externally and internally — and media relations, speech writing or in issues management, it has to have a high regard for the truth. Public relations is in the business of building relationships based on credibility, and we really can’t have relationships that are based on dishonesty. So, we need to be the first, best, most credible source of information for all publics — both internal and external.”

Photo by Flickr.

This is the intersection of AI and ethics: public relations as ethics counsel. Dr. Bowen suggests that when PR practitioners are engaging in this role — as ethics counselors to stakeholders — they look at moral principles and understand the PR duty in relation to those principles.

Although the role of PR as ethics counsel is clear, the type of ethical decisions that must be made become more complicated with layers of complexity — AI being one of those layers. Dr. Bowen considers this new layer and its challenges in terms of: What data analytics do we use? How invasive are those analytics and those information-gathering techniques? Should we purchase that type of information or not? If we do, was it obtained ethically?

Dr. Bowen raised a current example: “Thinking in terms of the very current issue of Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, that gives you an example of artificial intelligence being used to comb over massive amounts of data they had collected. Oftentimes surreptitiously because users click on the agree box without realizing that they’re subjecting themselves and their whole contact list to this data-scouring by an intelligence bot … That example is clearly unethical, and that’s why we need to study ethics and artificial intelligence, and how it’s going to be used in public relations because almost everything we do is research and data-driven — and that’s going to impact the entire field.”

When generally discussing ethical communications, Dr. Chris Roberts, a University of Alabama professor in the Department of Journalism and Creative Media, said, “It’s about people knowing where you’re coming from.”

“As we move into IT and and all the other cool technologies, the question becomes, ‘Can I trust you to tell me the truth?’,” Dr. Roberts probed. “And that’s about transparency, that’s about trust. And at the end of the day, to be ethical communicators, we have to, of course, be as accurate as we can be, but we have to be transparent.”

Dr. Roberts co-authored the book “Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications,” which features a list of questions intended to help solve ethical issues.

The W’s and H List” questions:

1. What’s your problem?
2. Why not follow the rules?
3. Who wins, who loses?
4. What’s it worth?
5. Who’s whispering in your ear?
6. How’s your decision going to look?

As ethics counselors, PR practitioners have a responsibility to identify and manage potential problems in advance of any crisis, and no matter what ethical framework is used, the key is to create a dialogue.

Cultivating ethical, digital literacy
Once we take all of these factors into consideration, how can the entire profession prepare for these present and still emerging challenges?

Dr. Bowen recommended starting with data literacy. With all of the technological changes around us, she urged young, emerging professionals to start thinking about “digital literacy and understanding the world and how information is aggregated, used and changing all the time.”

Photo by Pexels.

Dr. Bowen said, “Start reading everything you can in terms of WIRED  and other publications that focus on what’s happening in the tech world. You might not understand all of the technical parts of it, but you don’t have to because public relations people are specialists in interpreting the organization’s environment for stakeholders and publics, and talking about what we’re doing and what we should be doing to build relationships and enhance credibility and trust. So understanding the technical aspect is not important, but understanding the social ramifications of the technology is important.”

Echoing Dr. Roberts and Dr. Bowen, Iwata emphasized beginning with ethics in terms of your everyday life.

Iwata advised, “I think if I were to offer advice to communications people about AI and the future and ethics, it begins with fundamentals of your own life’s behaviors. If you’re ethical in your own life’s behavior, that’s not something you just switch off when you go to work. Ethics is something that’s deeply personal, and people can choose — or not choose — to be with certain businesses or institutions based on what they perceive to be their ethical behavior. Now AI is going to raise new questions, but the answers I think are going to be rooted in the fundamentals of doing the right thing.”

So, one thing is clear in the midst of our digital reality: Ethical challenges will always exist. However, the lesson for PR professionals isn’t to shy away with a grim outlook on what’s to come — it’s to uphold our role as ethics counselors to stakeholders, by identifying and managing potential issues before we find ourselves involved in a Facebook-level crisis.

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