AI and communications: the new imperative

Comms pros must champion the responsible and ethical use of artificial intelligence.

Communicators have a new imperative: champion the responsible and ethical use of artificial intelligence in our industry and by the clients and organizations we support.

AI is becoming mainstream, with more brands using it to identify, target, and connect with audiences, streamline operations and aid in internal initiatives. AI-enabled voice tech has brought personal assistants to the masses, and smart home tech makes running a home simple and seamless.

Awesome, right? Yes and no. All this convenience comes at a price: a greater risk to personal data.

Data privacy is already a huge concern for tech brands and social media giants have routinely found themselves in the hot seat for data transgressions. Take, for example, Facebook’s April announcement that it collected millions of its users’ email contacts without their permission.

And because AI uses vast amounts of data, these issues will only get more complicated.

Consumer trust is bottoming out. In the WE Brands in Motion 2018 global study, 94% of respondents said they want governments to step in when technology companies don’t use their tech ethically. As a result, honest and transparent intentions and communications, especially related to data use, are a powerful new brand currency.

Communicators are uniquely positioned to help brands think through how to use AI to meet business objectives without sacrificing privacy, and to be sure that tech doesn’t perpetuate harmful stereotypes due to built-in bias of the algorithms or the data being analyzed.

AI can be a positive and powerful tool. Our job, as PR pros, is to ensure it’s used with integrity, with openness and without harm. Here are five things you can do now to understand how AI is changing communications, ethics and transparency in tech, and just about everywhere else.

Get smart about AI. In order to advocate for the ethical use of AI, we need to understand what AI is, how it’s used, and which questions we should be asking.

Japan recently announced that it will require students to take classes in data science. There’s no doubt institutions of higher education around the globe will follow suit.

Just this month, the University of Kentucky’s Department of Integrated Strategic Communication focused its yearly symposium on "Digital Strategies, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in My Organization."

School isn’t the only option, though. General interest books abound, including AIQ by Nick Polson and James Scott, and AI Superpowers by Kai-Fu Lee. Both are readable and easy to understand. The Chartered Institute of Public Relations’ #AIinPR project also has numerous resources to help you get smart on AI.

Develop guiding principles. Every company deploying AI needs to think not just about how to deliver better services, but also how to use AI ethically and transparently. As guardians of the brand narrative, communicators should help their organization or clients think through its use of AI tools and how to communicate about them.

Learn about the tools at your company. AI-enabled tech can save a ton of time, especially on manual tasks that involve populating spreadsheets and analyzing data. Find out what your company has already and start putting it to work. Better yet, identify the top three things you’d like AI to help you with and match new or existing tools to your needs.

Build the internal infrastructure and processes you’ll need. Communications teams, like tech companies, will need guidance about how to handle data, and exactly what AI can and can’t touch. They’ll also need to understand algorithmic bias — how AI can unintentionally amplify sexist and racist attitudes.

Talk to your tech teams to understand how your organization adopts or creates new tools, and what kind of vetting takes place to mitigate bias.

Go deep on bots and digital assistants. Three or four years ago, brands didn’t have to consider how they might show up on voice. Now, with the proliferation of digital assistants, voice is mandatory for many brands.

Chat and messaging are increasingly important, too. Brands in China have been using AI to optimize one-on-one messaging with consumers for years — expect Western brands to play catch-up.

Every day, AI is opening new doors, new perspectives and new opportunities. Industry-wide change will happen fast. Like everyone else, communicators stand to benefit from AI innovations that will improve the way we do our jobs and live our lives.

But we also have a responsibility. As leaders in our field, who have both insight into industry trends and the ear of the C-suite, we are well positioned to explain how AI fits into the big picture and to advocate that it be used ethically and transparently.

Are you ready to step up to the plate?

Matt Ashworth is GM of Seattle and SVP of technology at WE.

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