Artificial Intelligence: The opportunity for communications leaders

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The growth of Artificial Intelligence (AI) presents professional communicators with many interesting opportunities, as organisations of all sizes need expert guidance to navigate the reputational minefield that surrounds this revolutionary technology.

In September this year, The Economist described AI as ‘… much more than another Silicon Valley buzzword — more, even, than seminal products like the smartphone. It is better seen as a resource, a bit like electricity, that will touch every part of the economy and society’. It is already being applied in areas as diverse as autonomous vehicles, guided weapons systems and predicting human behaviour.

Last week, I attended a workshop, as part of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations (CIPR) Ethics Festival, which considered the intersection between AI and communications management. I was pleased that my professional body was making the space to look at how AI is impacting on our industry. In the couple of hours we had together, there was only time to scratch the surface of such a huge topic, but the speakers got us off to a good start.

The event was opened by Kerry Sheehan from the CIPR AI in PR panel and two domains.

Firstly, we looked at how PR practitioners might use different AI applications to deliver a better service to their organisations, clients and audiences.

A crowd-sourced list, which the CIPR #AIinPR panel has pulled together, contains 136 tools which members are finding useful. While this resource will help any communications professional searching for applications to augment their practice, some of the examples are not strictly AI as they do not have ‘the capacity to learn or adapt to new experiences or stimuli’. This is the key phrase used by the UK All Party Parliamentary Group on Artificial Intelligence to define the usual characteristics of AI. Emma Thwaites, Founder and CEO, Thwaites Communications, added to the toolkit with some reading recommendations and thoughts from her time at Singularity University in California.

Secondly, Jim Rowe from Blooming Social Media effortlessly built a chat bot in Facebook Messenger – live on stage – while talking us through his experience at the front line, providing services for small and medium sized businesses. He shared with us the questions he always asks clients at the beginning of a project, starting with: ‘Have you used a chat bot?’ Jim insists that clients enforce a robust data retention and deletion policy and deals swiftly with any resistance, citing GDPR as the ultimate authority.

We also heard about text-based chat bots that are being used by consumer brands today to build rapport with the public. A number of large organisations are handing over simple customer service enquiries to chat bots too.

In spite of these working examples, my experiments with market-leading virtual assistants have given me little confidence in the ability of conversational AI to take over influencer relationships, at least for the time being. Successful interactions with journalists and other sophisticated stakeholders require impeccable judgement which is often based on instinct.

Furthermore, industry analyst firm Gartner has predicted that ‘…through 2022, 85 percent of AI projects will deliver erroneous outcomes due to bias in data, algorithms or the teams responsible for managing them’. We need to bear this shocking figure in mind when seeking inputs for communications strategy, and question the methodology for data collection and analysis rigorously. When a supplier is asked how an algorithm works, ‘We don’t really know,’ is not an acceptable reply.

Relationship management and strategy are just two examples of communications disciplines that still have to be delivered by us humans – or what the sci-fi community affectionately calls ‘wetware’. There are plenty of other areas to think about too.

AI presents us with a multitude of reputational issues to navigate in sensitive areas such as privacy, transparency and bias. This situation is made more challenging by a lack of clear rules on enabling safe and ethical innovation.

As professionals whose role is focused on building mutual understanding, communications leaders are in a strong position to advise how AI implementations will be greeted by the media, influencers and the general public. With such expert help, organisations will be best placed to design AI strategies which minimise risk and create beneficial outcomes for consumers and businesses alike.

Photo © Nicola Rossi