It’s rare (if not unheard of) for client technology to be charged with an unlimited rap sheet of crimes against humanity that range from posing an existential threat to health to bidding to take over the world, but that’s exactly what’s happened to the the entire machine learning and artificial intelligence sector since the launch of Chat GPT 4 on March 13 earlier this year. The hullabaloo around generative AI technologies, or GAI for short, is separate and distinct to the many instances of Artificial Narrow Intelligence, or ANI developed by many companies to automate specific and defined processes, such as disease mapping or natural language processing applications. The problem is, however, that nuance is lost in the wider public debate and thus any company with even a tangential association with any form of AI should be prepared to expect some form of reputational impact on their business.
“GPT-4 is exciting and scary,” New York Times columnist Kevin Roose wrote, adding that there two kinds of risks involved in AI systems: the good ones, i.e. the ones we anticipate, plan for and try to prevent and the bad ones, i.e. the ones we cannot anticipate. “The more time I spend with AI systems like GPT-4,” Roose writes, “the less I’m convinced that we know half of what’s coming.
The torrent of Frankenstein headlines and ramping public concern has not been a phenomenon solely restricted to the UK. The World Economic Forum and Statista report that 27% of the world’s population has a fear of the technology ‘going rogue’ and while the reputational outlook may be bleak in the UK, our concern domestically indexes well below the worries expressed in markets such as India, China, Germany and the US.
The potential liabilities for businesses range from investability, broader commercial viability to a developing national and supranational appetite for additional and costly oversight or governance.
For companies caught in the eye of the storm, there are a number of practical PR steps in the five point playbook that can be adopted to help limit the potential damage as follows:-
The AI moniker has become toxic. If your organisation is lucky enough to not have the terminology visibly integrated into your identity or brand, consider a ‘find and replace’ strategy that removes references to artificial intelligence with machine learning so far as it is technically and commercially accurate. While there are of course semantic differences, the terms can often used interchangeably; ML conveys a more passive and benign technology
A great deal of AI applications are based on finite and ring-fenced use cases in narrow application. Be clear that your code has no capability, no matter how advanced, to ‘go rogue’ and obviate human oversight. Script a short, defensive summary in layman’s terms to define the scope of operation of your AI – what it does – and more importantly, what it doesn’t do, particularly in ANI sectors. If it needs to be technical, keep it simple and sense-check it with audiences that have no domain expertise.
As a general rule of thumb, hold your defensive strategy for use in responsive situations; however, if your business has been reputationally imperilled by recent events, consider using your positioning strategy more actively, for instance as a temporary banner on your website.
When the external context is challenging, the response of many businesses is to retract by reducing their external communications output. But by far the best strategy is to do the opposite. Work through all your points of liability and develop counterpoints that are authentic and defensible. For instance, ‘AI will take away gainful employment’ can be positively countered with the assertion that ‘AI improves the quality of workplace endeavour by removing the repetitive, low grade tasks from employees, allowing more time to focus on rewarding, value-add activities.’ Expect every well-rehearsed brickbat to be dug out and hurled at you – and be prepared for all of them.
Once you are confident in your positive messages, take a look at task number #4. Then get ready to take your story out. If the media temperature is still hostile to good news about AI, deploy your stories on your social channels instead. Maintain community relations in shared media, but don’t engage in lengthy online debates with trolls who will never shift their opinion.
If your business has not addressed the cornerstone AI issues yet, now is the time to do so. Be sure you have solid company protocols around ethics, a positive and open-minded disposition towards regulation, privacy, accountability, transparency, bias and safety – all the potential areas of liability. The best way to encapsulate these policies is to write a short, simple and matter-of-fact company charter that sets out what your business will undertake to do in all these critical areas of engagement
Your staff are your reputational bell-weather and your best ambassadors. So integrate them in all these processes. If your charter or your positive communications messages don’t play internally, then its not fit for external consumption