Ethics is always hard, ethics in AI is even harder. The new Ethics Guide for AI in PR provides insights into the ‘big issues’ as organisations turn to AI for efficiency and effectiveness. It outlines the governance role of PR professionals in guarding reputations and also provides practical advice on how to evaluate communication processes and tools for their ethical implications.

As corporations are becoming more digital, data-driven and agile in response to stakeholder expectations and the COVID-19 pandemic, more focus is being placed on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and its role in organisational systems, ways of working and decision-making.

The world of communication has had a jump-start too. Not only has the pandemic revolutionised both the way practitioners communicate and the content that has become important, but the speed at which this has all happened has been phenomenal. The mantra is that when we all return to ‘normal’, we will have leapt forwards five years. This shock has accelerated what was already happening in communication: sophisticated technology, from content management and campaign automation systems to collaboration platforms and data analytics are becoming more common. This has implications for the way professional PR teams are being structured, roles and competency sets. A truly agile culture is required of us as communicators too.

However, before beginning to play with all the new, shiny AI tools that we have suddenly become aware of, it is worth pausing to consider that AI is fraught with some big ethical challenges which we need to understand and confront immediately.

The UK Chartered Institute of Public Relations and the Canadian Public Relations Society have joined forces to prepare an Ethics Guide to Artificial Intelligence in PR (see www.cipr.co.uk/ai).

As the authors of this Guide, we believe that PR professionals are trusted advisors not only on communication, but about the purpose and values of our organisations. As they transform and embed AI, there is a huge opportunity for us. Ethical and reputational guardianship needs to be at the heart of how organisations approach and implement AI, and that is our business.

Getting ethics right, doing the right thing is hard enough in normal life. Adding in AI generates a recipe for decision-making fraught with perils. One that requires human minds to focus on ethics at every turn because every mistake will be perpetuated and amplified in the big data, algorithmic universe. Be in no doubt, much grief will be caused by the purely financially-driven implementation of AI, and that will be a temptation as organizations seek to survive the pandemic.

Trust in AI is paramount and poorly designed and executed AI projects will ruin reputations. Gaining trust means ensuring transparency and inclusiveness in governance, design, testing and deployment and being aware of issues for staff, of bias, diversity and privacy. Communication professionals need to be involved in all stages of development and to do so we must learn about AI and its ethical dilemmas.

The Ethics Guide to Artificial Intelligence in PR sets a framework for understanding the big issues in AI and for arriving at ethical decisions. It uses a five-step process: learning about AI, defining PR and AI pitfalls, identifying ethical issues and PR principles, using a decision-making framework and deciding ethically. To help with identifying the ethical challenges, the data ethics canvas from the Open Data Institute has been utilised and the sixteen public relations ethical principles come from the Global Alliance’s1 code.

We have identified six macro issues currently defining the AI environment and which have to be considered by us and all senior managers when we contemplate automation and AI:

  • The social change that AI will bring
  • Changes in the nature of everyone’s work and our responsibilities
  • AI having the potential to redistribute power or concentrate it in the hands of those with the resources
  • The governance of algorithms to avoid selectivity and discrimination and building in transparency in the way they make decisions
  • Privacy control and transparency on issues such as storage, how data is aggregated, shared and commercialised
  • Bias, which is inbuilt in automation and AI systems

As well as outlining the big issues, the Guide also gives practical help on picking a way through use of individual AI enabled tools. Two examples illustrate the decision-making process in action, one around using LinkedIn Insight tagging and the other on using facial recognition.

Yes, it’s complicated and proves that a good maxim to remember in professional life is that just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done. Indeed, the essence of all ethical decisions is making thoughtful choices which limit actions, but also permits them. The test of a well-reflected ethical decision is one that has survived scrutiny and challenge in thought, intent and execution.

About the Ethics Guide to AI in PR:
The Ethics Guide is the latest guidance from the global AIinPR panel. The panel has produced four primers, a directory of automation and AI tools for PR and issued two major research reports: ‘Humans Still Needed,’ published in 2018 looks at the impact of AI tools on the skill set of public relations, finding that currently only 12% of skills or tasks have been assisted or replaced by AI with a potential to reach 38% by 2023.  ‘The effects of AI on the professions’ was published in January 2020 and draws out how vulnerable all professionals are to automation and AI, with communication being behind other professions in preparing. It also provides a way forward for the profession. For access to the panel’s work see www.cipr.co.uk/ai.

Jean Valin, APR, Fellow CPRS and Honorary Fellow CIPR (UK) is a trusted senior advisor in public relations, an author, editor and mentor. He founded Valin Strategic Communications after a 30-year career as a senior communication executive.  He has advised senior officials, CEO’s and ministers of the Government of Canada on communication matters throughout his career. Active throughout his career as a volunteer leader in professional bodies, he is a founding member of the Global Alliance for Public Relations and communication management.

Anne Gregory, Ph.D., is Chair in Corporate Communication at University of Huddersfield in the United Kingdom. She has published over 100 books, book chapters and academic journal articles. She teaches on the UK Government Masters programme for senior communicators and leads the global capability research ream. Professor Gregory holds the IPR Distinguished Pathfinder award and the CIPR Sir Stephen Tallents Medal for outstanding contribution to the profession.

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