FUTUREPROOFING PR: Ethical accountability in AI MUST become part of the PR curriculum

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By Dr Susan Kinnear

1992 was probably the most pronounced ‘annus horribilis’ in the history of marketing education.  Those of us who experienced Hoover’s "Two free flights! Unbelievable!" campaign wholeheartedly supported the drive to introduce financial accountability into marketing education that ensued.

But 2020 has rapidly become to public relations (PR) what 1992 was to marketing, and that’s a huge shame.

This could have been our year – our ‘time to shine.’  We’ve battled against the hegemony of marketing for decades, but the conditions of the pandemic and the desperate need for public communication has, in many ways, finally settled the argument over what PR is actually for.  Never before have our specialist, impartial and objective skills been so indispensable in the fight to save lives, businesses and communities.

But at the same time as the pandemic shone a light on our value, it exposed one of our most gaping fault lines.  For while the Hoover debacle threw into stark relief the lack of financial accountability in marketing, the pandemic has laid bare the lack of ethical accountability in PR, specifically in the areas of data use and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

AI is THE major emerging area of PR practice at the moment and yet, over the last few months, the misapplication and unethical use of data and AI has dramatically undermined public confidence in both the government and the practice of communications itself.

This isn’t the right space to re-hash all that has happened, but if, as marketing educators did post Hoover, we examine the symptoms in order to identify the cause and prescribe a cure, it becomes immediately evident where the problems lie.

As Amanda Coleman says in her one of her excellent blogs following the exams fiasco, it is the duty of communicators to speak up where they identify issues. We are effectively the voice of organisational stakeholders within the organisation itself, so if we are unwilling to speak truth to power, then who speaks for those most affected by the subsequent actions of the organisation?

The government knew their mis-use of a badly conceived algorithm to apportion grades would lead to massive social inequalities.  They were warned of this on 6th May by the Royal Statistical Society and again on 7th July by their own Select Committee.  Yet where were the PR practitioners warning of the huge reputational damage that would ensue if the government pressed ahead?

AI has become part of our lives in ways we have yet to even comprehend, although the CIPR has produced a series of useful guides to help practitioners understand and respond to new practices and approaches.

But just like financial accountability in marketing education, to make AI work for the public good, we MUST have ethical accountability in PR education, and that must be taught as part of any approach to AI itself.

As 2020 has demonstrated, AI is too important now to be left on the side-lines of PR education.  It must be embedded in the curriculum of our future practitioners to ensure the kinds of issues we experienced this year do not happen again.

The CIPR guide reminds us that working in the public interest and causing no harm should both be top of mind when utilising AI.  Any curriculum content looking at AI should therefore:

  1. Incorporate digital data pedagogies
  2. Define the intersection of PR and AI and explore the potential pitfalls
  3. Identify the ethical issues that may arise, underpinned by public relations principles
  4. Use decision making trees to scenario map potential outcomes
  5. Help students learn to make and defend informed, ethical decisions

Dr Susan Kinnear is a Chartered PR and Director of the MA in International Public Relations and Global Communication Management at the School of Journalism, Media and Culture, Cardiff University.


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