As a Chartered Public Relations practitioner, a Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations and Chair of the CIPR’s AI in PR global panel, Kerry Sheehan looks at the rewards and risks of AI to the PR profession as it relates to PR’s advisory role to businesses, brands and organisations.
Kerry firmly believes that technology overall is extremely powerful, to the extent to which it can have power and influence, and that AI stands to completely transform our ways of life. “AI is touching every industry and every sector across the globe,” she says. “It touches and will touch everyone to some extent.”
That power needs to be better communicated to the public, in her opinion. “AI, quite bluntly, has a PR problem,” Kerry says. “What we saw, particularly last year, was a lot of hype. The public's perception – in whichever country or market you operate in – is the robots are coming. We've seen lots of computers with robot hands typing on them. We've seen hundreds of thousands of those images wrongly portraying AI. This only adds to the misconceptions, hype and possibly fear.”
Kerry says those images have nothing to do with AI and insists they only contribute to the lack of understanding and subsequent general discourse around the technology.
“This is why people think automation is AI and why people think AI is about the robots taking over,” she explains. “We see even in the HR world, images and video content of lines of people queuing up to be interviewed with a physical robot. It’s about setting people's expectations and getting them off on the right and ethical understanding to start with.”
It’s impossible to make ethical considerations around AI without understanding the technology, how it really works and what it's capable of doing, Kerry says. PR and marketing professionals have a role to play in educating the public and decision-makers at the top.
“We must be empowered to speak with confidence to C-suite executives on their AI programmes,” she says. “We must ensure ethics is always the top consideration and that there is open, transparent and ethical PR and marketing to the end user. Traditionally, data wasn’t the bread and butter of PR professionals, but it now has to be. A full understanding of real data and the ethical considerations has to be in our skillset for AI.”
Some of the misguided fears could be attributed to the lack of ethical disclaimers differentiating AI and humans in practice, Kerry believes. “If you're speaking to a bot, when can you speak to a human? This is particularly important as some of the interactivity [and AI's ability with] voice is getting better. Can everyone tell that it’s not a human? Probably not.”
It has even gotten to the point where PR professionals and communicators must become more like data scientists, Kerry says. “How can you best advise clients, brands and organizations on those tough ethical questions for AI builds – before you can even get to deployment – if you don't know the ins and outs yourself?” she says. “You can't.”
This is a growing challenge, as more automation and AI tool vendors search for effective PR solutions to effectively communicate and differentiate their solutions.
“There is growing recognition that PR, like most other corporate functions, must work smarter, faster,” she says. “We need to smash results quicker and we're being asked by the executives to do that. But it is also the times we are in, particularly now due to the global emergency, and as we look to what recovery may look like when we get there, we have all been part of and will continue to be part of for the foreseeable future.”
“So that's what we're doing on the AI in PR panel. We’re looking at how we can work smarter, faster, and what process areas we can automate and how we can confidently advise and guide businesses on ethical AI. It’s one of the biggest opportunities but also challenges they will have probably faced in recent times," Kerry says.
Kerry would like to see disclaimers that clearly state when people are using or interacting with AI. ““I also think we should go a step further and explain the algorithms that are actually making decisions on people’s lives,” she suggests. “Particularly when you've got high consequence decisions, such as mortgages and financial products. And also the complaints process for raising a dispute on an algorithm, which has made a decision on/for somebody who is not happy with the outcome. In addition to this, there should be information in all data collection statements, such as GDPR and equivalent data protection laws in other countries, that people’s data may be used for AI programmes, products and tools.”
While her work is now focused on the implications and opportunities of AI, Kerry says she has always been interested in technology.
“I think there’s starting to be real recognition now that women can do tech, data and AI,” she says. “What really inspires me to go a bit deeper into it is to ensure, as an ethical communicator, we are representative of the people that we’re serving. If you're communicating with men and women, you can't just have all of these systems built by men."