PRmoment Awards Tickets 2024 PRmoment Leaders PA Mediapoint PA Assignments PRCA PRmoment Awards Winners North

Is AI making PR less ethical?

Credit: Credit: iStock Margi

AI can be an extremely adaptable tool for streamlining a range of tasks within PR, as we saw in last week’s feature on the utility of using ChatGPT in PR. This week, we’re taking a closer look at the complex topic of ethics surrounding AI, and questioning whether the growing use of AI is making PR less ethical.

AI can be unethical in the wrong hands

Leah Archibald, senior PR and content executive at PR agency Herd  “The use of AI in general can be really unethical if found in the wrong hands, especially if it’s not regulated. But, individuals may be innocently using ChatGPT in the wrong way too. I think it’s very easy to be tempted to use ChatGPT and similar tools like a search engine to get a quick answer in one place, without having to look around for it. But this is where PRs could wrongfully share false or outdated information, which in some industries, say healthcare and financial services, could be detrimental.

“AI scrapes the internet for information, so though it can do the legwork for you, you should approach with caution and sense check whatever content it gives you. It can be biased and sometimes even offensive. Publishing content from ChatGPT, and assigning it to an expert or brand, could be an unethical move. It’s always best to do your own research first, using credible, reliable and authoritative resources and use ChatGPT to flesh out the content. This way you’ll be more clued up on the narrative but can formulate your story much, much quicker.

“AI serves as a valuable instrument for PR professionals to enhance operations and guide campaign strategies. However, as with any technology, it's crucial to ensure its ethical utilisation. While AI may not be a life saving tool, its proper application can certainly streamline processes.”

Transparency is key

Robert Roessler, director of PR agency Axicom: “Ethical guidelines for PR practitioners are simple: We shouldn’t do anything that takes away people’s ability to make informed choices. But the issue with using AI in our work is that it has been built by humans and has inherited their bias which, unintentionally, can make our work harmful.

“As many organisations discover the strengths of AI, the timeframe for when agencies can exploit these lucrative shortcuts is quickly coming to an end. AI is, therefore, more about redefining how to provide value to clients. For now, though, it is simple to uphold ethical guidelines: don’t lie and make your use of AI transparent. And, spend some of the time you save by using AI to make sure the results are ethical and fair.”

The AI ethics and legality of AI are full of unknowns

Claudia Moselhi, founder of PR agency CLO PR: “A prospective client recently questioned whether their organisation needed a PR agency at all because they could use AI tools to generate press releases and content. My body flinched. Not because I might miss out on a juicy contract but because AI presents huge ethical and reputational risks that surely leaders of organisations need to take seriously.

“I see AI having its place in simplifying tasks to be more effective. But I remain concerned about AI-driven tools for more sophisticated activity like content creation or analysis of data. There are still too many unknowns on how to approach these tools. For example, who owns the copyright of the result if words are used from a certain database?

“We serve to feed accurate information and content to the media and the public, and with that, we have the responsibility to uphold trust in society. As an industry we must help to lead through more knowledge gathering and training. Human PRs must not lose the ability to intervene."

… but it is not unlike ethical challenges PR has faced in the past

Mark Seall, CEO of AI communications agency Inference Cloud: “Every new technology creates ethical dilemmas. In most cases we find ways to solve or adapt to them, but usually not without some hand wringing.

In the worst cases we focus so much on the new dilemma that we forget the existing troubles we are facing, such as in this case the inherent challenges that social media has brought to journalism and public discourse.

In other cases we rush to create legislation without fully considering unintended consequences, or we jump to other early conclusions in ignorance of the ultimate benefits that technology can bring. All in all, we need to avoid overreacting and take our time to think things through, in order to get the most out of a fantastic new technology.

Establishing an AI code of ethics could be the way forward

Mary Poliakova, co-founder and COO of PR agency Drofa Comms: “New technologies, such as AI, are continually evolving the market. They present as new tools that can be utilised in various work areas - including communications. For example, AI can be a great assistant to PR specialists, constructing the structure and summary of the text and automatising other tasks. Nevertheless, PR specialists should not overuse these emerging technologies. Journalists have become more vigilant, closely examining every pitch or expert opinion for signs of AI usage. And unfortunately, PRs who misuse AI risk undermining the media's trust in the PR industry.

“Moreover, AI raises many ethical concerns. For instance, it remains uncertain whether the training data used to build the AI models include biases or discriminatory trends, which can lead to unfair targeting or the spread of false news. Regarding this dilemma, the PR community at all levels, including international PR organisations, associations, and agencies, should proactively establish a code of ethics for using current and forthcoming advanced technologies. Meanwhile, we need to manually review, fact check and label all AI generated content to prevent ethical issues and reputation damage.

“At the current state, every leader in the PR industry can already contribute to ethics maintenance. From my own experience, I recommend PR pros to keep experimenting with various AI tools to identify the most ethical implementation methods in their work. I also advise PR leads to independently research several AI tools and finalise thorough instructions for all employees on how to deploy them and what is the most ethical way to do so.”

… and employees need to be regularly trained on AI use to stay up to date

Mike Schmidt, lawyer at Schmidt & Clark LLP: “Ensuring that PR incorporates AI whilst maintaining ethical standards involves establishing clear guidelines for AI integration within strategies.

“This includes creating a robust ethical framework that the entire team comprehends, with regular training sessions to keep everyone abreast of evolving AI developments and ethical considerations. Transparency is key. Openly communicating how and why AI is employed in PR campaigns builds trust with the audience. By remaining vigilant about the evolving landscape of AI ethics and adapting strategies accordingly, one can strike the right balance between leveraging AI's advantages and upholding ethical standards.”

PR agencies should take the first step forwards in upholding ethical AI use

Claire Simpson, head of growth at PR agency Hard Numbers: “Whilst the emergence of generative AI has raised a host of ethical questions for PR practitioners, it hasn’t made the industry any more or less ethical. As with any new technology, regulation and oversight are playing catch-up. This means PR professionals have to navigate a swathe of grey areas in relation to AI adoption.

“But existing ethical frameworks and moral principles can be applied in this brave new world. Core values around confidentiality, doing no harm, the need for human oversight, and transparency underpin AI best practices. We set up an AI working group within the business to guide our thinking on AI and define what ‘fair use’ looks like for our team and our clients. Ethical consideration can and should be at the forefront of AI development, not a barrier to innovation.”

The ethical question may still lie with the humans using it, rather than the AI itself

Glenn Matchett, managing director at PR agency Grammatik, says, “AI is a tool, and it can be misused. The tech is far from perfect. But it doesn't necessarily follow that AI will make PR less ethical. AI has no control over human ethics—people are what can make PR ethical or unethical in how they use the tools at their disposal.

“Whilst AI is already being used unethically and irresponsibly for PR and promotion, all is not lost. Consistent, universal training in ethical AI usage, along with best practice industry guidelines are must haves. Clarity and transparency on when AI has been used and efficient human oversight to identify and root out inaccuracies should also be in the plan. That in itself will no doubt be easier said than done. But the AI genie is out of the bottle and it’s about collectively getting to grips with it, rather than putting our heads in the sand.”

Keep company policy up to date with evolving AI ethical dilemmas

Paul Joseph, managing director at PR agency Full Fat: "Keeping an open mind in the ever-evolving landscape of AI is essential to the future of PR. There are ethical dilemmas around its use, including data collection and privacy, transparency, and accountability.

“However, when used responsibly and employed with a human touch, AI offers major advantages for marketers. There should always be transparency with stakeholders, and maintaining accountability is key to ensuring that the use of AI in PR remains ethical.

“We have an Ethical Marketing Policy in place, under which we pledge to disclose the use of AI in our strategies and its impact on decision-making processes, as well as to conduct internal training about the ethical considerations and implications of using AI.”

AI is still in its infancy, and as with any new tool, there are many grey areas whilst the legality and ethical conventions catch up with the technology. That said, simply rejecting such a potent tool risks PRs being left behind.

The consensus amongst PR professionals is that AI, at least in its current form, cannot be used ethically without proper human consideration. Where AI tools may be difficult to hold accountable, humans are not - and it is the responsibility of PR professionals themselves to uphold these ethics, no matter what tools they are using.

Alex Beach, writer at PRmoment

If you enjoyed this article, sign up for free to our twice weekly editorial alert.

We have six email alerts in total - covering ESG, internal comms, PR jobs and events. Enter your email address below to find out more: