AI or not AI, that isn’t the question.
Behind the curve, anyone?
By Anne Gregory, Echo Advisory Board
Is AI a threat or a supportive tool for Public Relations? That was the subject of an all too short Webinar run by the Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ Corporate & Financial Group at lunchtime on 20th April.
A high-level expert panel drawn from the CIPR’s AIinPR Panel, agencies, specialist AI developers and a recruitment consultant swapped views in a wide discussion covering the apparent reluctance of the public relations profession to embrace AI tools through to whether these developments should be regulated.
There was broad agreement that the profession was behind the curve in AI adoption, despite some excellent examples of good practice. The numbers aversion and technophobia which has characterised the profession to date has done it no favours. A recent survey from the PRCA indicates that a staggering 25% of practitioners had no intention of using technologies such as Chat GPT. While some of this may be down to generational differences, there are other dimensions in play such as lack of trust in the current technologies and concerns over the ethical implications in their use. Also apparent is that there has been a recent awakening about AI being here to stay and enthusiasm is growing. The challenge is that this is a big elephant for most practitioners and it’s crucial that organisations like CIPR and PRCA provide guidance and training on where to start. The advice of the panel? Plunge in and start experimenting.
The CIPR’s recent Artificial Intelligence (AI) Tools and the Impact on Public Relations Practice report also came up for discussion. It’s thrown up some fascinating facts: as of November 2022, only 4.5% of the 6,000 potential tools available to public relations professionals were named or described as having AI elements. However, the advent of Chat GPT in the same month has led to an explosion of new tools and applications , many of them doing task-specific work such as media analysis and stakeholder mapping. But these new technologies are not just about doing individual ‘drudge jobs’. Many new generative AI tools are multi-task, multi-modal and can be used in combination to offer more strategic interventions. Together they can develop informed public relations strategies based on deep knowledge of stakeholder aspirations, needs and actions. They cover the whole public relations eco system from helping to establish relationships to monitoring organisational performance against key criteria such as purpose, ESG and societal demands.
Of course the panel addressed the down sides to AI too. At the moment, the AI arena is an unregulated wild west with powerful, even lethal technologies, developed or backed by a few powerful organisations who are releasing them without transparent consideration of potential consequences, seen and unseen. AI can be a force for good, for example, the huge data sets used to map cellular variations in at risk groups so that preventative measures can be taken against debilitating diseases before they can be even diagnosed. But equally, they can be used to design weapon systems and dis and mis information campaigns that are of existential danger to humanity. We are at a point when real voices, images, videos can be copied, cloned and manipulated to an extent where it is impossible to distinguish fake and genuine. When people can no longer trust their eyes, ears and other senses, the very fabric of society is at threat.
This leads to the difficult area of AI and ethics. There are challenges for practice – whether or not there should be disclosure when AI has been used to generate words, pictures, videos and so on. Caution about bias in data sets, enough knowledge to ask questions about the algorithms being used is a pre-requisite of operational competence. It’s down to practitioners to ask hard questions about privacy and levels of transparency about, for example, what and how much data is held on individuals and groups, how it’s collected, aggregated, stored, shared, because these are the questions that stakeholders will ask.
All this points to a wider and long cherished role for public relations practitioners. A regular complaint is about how ‘busyness’ prevents the strategic. The AI governance role is one to be grasped. Someone who has an overview of the organisation, who knows stakeholders and their expectations and tolerances, who is attuned to recognising risk, who understands reputational jeopardy, who knows the difference between right and wrong. is a role well suited to the public relations professionals’ capability set.
Is there anything in the public relations remit that AI will not be able to do in future? The panel were very clear that areas such as governance, leadership and good management are human activities not amenable to AI, as are good judgement, integrity, building trusted relationships, offering sound, nuanced advice to senior managers. To fulfil this remit, practitioners will of course need digital and data literacy, but they will also need critical thinking skills, an ability to challenge, to understand people, exercise emotional intelligence and make decisions ethically.
So what with public relations look like in five years’ time? It’s clear the profession is at a transition point and it’s time to up and accelerate the game. But the honest answer is ‘who knows’? There are already working autonomous agents who can be given objectives to meet and who will develop the ways and means to meet those objectives without human intervention. The last five months have seen remarkable strides in AI. What the next five years will bring is both opportunity and scary, but one huge contribution the public relations profession can make is to encourage a global conversation about what sort of society we want and what role AI should play in it.
The AI &PR: Threat or Tool Panel was Chaired by Amy Stupavsky from CIPR Corporate and Financial Group and comprised Allison Spray, managing director of data and analytics at H+K; Andrew Bruce Smith, CIPR fellow, chair of the CIPR’s AIinPR panel; Professor Emeritus Anne Gregory, CIPR board and member AI inPR panel and member of the Echo Advisory Board; Grant Somerville, global head of corporate and financial communications at Melbury Wood; Matías Rodsevich, founder and CEO of PRLab; Neil Morrison, head of measurement at Signal AI.