This blog is provided by the IPR Digital Media Research Center

Artificial intelligence (AI) has made a transformative impact on public relations practices. From the traditional adoption of AI in media monitoring and social media sentiment analysis, to the rapid development of generative AI in recent years, public relations professionals and organizational leaders are urged to quickly adapt and come up with policies and guidelines to use AI ethically and effectively. The most recent Generative AI in Organization report by the Institute for Public Relations revealed that while communication leaders generally showed comfortability with generative AI, they are also concerned with its ethical and societal implications. As we continue navigating the uncharted territory of AI, one key question remains: how do we optimize the balance between AI and human expertise? To answer this question, not only should we hear the perspectives of organizational leaders, but we also need to better understand how consumers perceive and respond to organizations’ use of AI.

In a recent study I conducted with Dr. Linwan Wu and Dr. Weiting Tao, we examined how consumers respond to the application of AI in companies’ corporate ability (i.e., a company’s capability in producing quality products and services) and corporate social responsibility (i.e., a company’s fulfillment of being a good citizen in society) practices. See more on the concepts of corporate ability and corporate social responsibility (CSR) strategies in this article.

We were particularly interested in how consumers responded to corporate use of AI to develop corporate initiatives(rather than using AI to draft communication messages) to tap into the managerial and organizational behavioral functions of public relations. For instance, AI-applied corporate ability practice may include the use of AI such as chatbots, big data, and machine learning in enhancing product development, quality control, and innovation and research. On the other hand, AI-applied CSR practice may involve AI in integrating overall corporate strategies and CSR strategies, and using AI in analyzing social issues and trends, tracking program effectiveness, and matching causes to programs.

Our two experiments revealed the following:
1.) The application of AI in CSR practices generated greater consumer intentions to promote the company via word-of-mouth and led to greater purchase intention than when AI was applied to corporate ability practices.
2.) Consumers had more positive perceptions of companies when AI was used for CSR practices, which explained the more positive response toward AI-applied CSR practices vs. AI-applied corporate ability practices
— People with more negative perceptions toward robot-like entities (i.e., “uneasiness with robots”) also tended to respond more positively to the application of AI in CSR practices (vs. corporate ability practices) due to increased perceived warmth of the company.

Why did this happen?
To explain the findings, we dove into the Stereotype Content Model in social psychology and the Theory of Interactive Media Effects for the Study of Human-AI Interaction (HAII-TIME) in computer-mediated communication. The Stereotype Content Model emphasizes two fundamental dimensions–competence and warmth–in forming social perception. The HAII-TIME model suggests that following the heuristic of stereotypes about machines, people tend to perceive AI as being objective and efficient, but emotionless and “cold.”

In corporate initiatives, consumers typically associate corporate ability with competence and CSR with warmth. When AI is applied in companies’ corporate ability practices, it does not necessarily strengthen consumers’ perceived competence of the company. However, the application of AI in CSR practices may strengthen consumers’ perceived warmth of the company and offset the negative stereotype of AI being “cold,” thereby leading to more positive consumer responses. This explanation was supported by the findings in our study, where the effects were found to be even more pronounced among people with more negative perception toward robot-like entities.

So, what does this mean for public relations professionals and communication leaders grappling with the evolving impact of AI?
Our findings provide a convincing case for the application of AI for CSR practices. The good news is that while AI is generally perceived as cold and lacking emotion, its application in CSR practices may instill the perception of warmth and thus offset the negative stereotype of AI. Better yet, the benevolence and warmth of CSR practice may override the discomfort with AI for skeptics who are more dispositionally uncomfortable with robot-like entities. Nevertheless, organizations and communication leaders should continue strengthening the ethical guidelines, governance, and professional training when it comes to the application of AI in CSR. It is also important to be educated about the potential bias and systemic equity issues AI may cause when it is applied in CSR without prudent human expertise.

Without a doubt, the technology and industry landscape will keep evolving in the coming years, and new opportunities and challenges will arise. We hope the empirical evidence from our research provides some optimistic perspectives on incorporating AI in CSR practices as our industry continues to explore the dethical and effective use of AI.

Dr. Zifei Fay Chen

Dr. Zifei Fay Chen is an associate professor of public relations at the University of San Francisco and a member of IPR ELEVATE. She is on the teams of IPR’s Behavioral Insights Research Center and APAC Committee. Follow her on LinkedIn.

Research paper co-authors:
Dr. Linwan Wu is associate dean for research and associate professor of advertising in the College of Information and Communications at the University of South Carolina.

Dr. Weiting Tao is an associate professor of strategic communication in the School of Communication at the University of Miami.

Original research paper:
Wu, L., Chen, Z. F., & Tao, W., (2024). Instilling warmth in artificial intelligence? Examining publics’ responses to AI-applied corporate ability and corporate social responsibility practices. Public Relations Review, 50(1), 102426.

Heidy Modarelli handles Growth & Marketing for IPR. She has previously written for Entrepreneur, TechCrunch, The Next Web, and VentureBeat.
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