Case Study: Updating an Assisted Living Facility’s Crisis Plan

What do you do if a resident of an assisted living facility “elopes” and no one can find him? Or when caregivers are accused of possibly mistreating patients and residents?

These are just two of the hypothetical scenarios we had to address recently when we helped an assisted living facility update its crisis communications plan and conduct media coaching for senior leadership.

We’ve found that the crisis planning process rarely changes, but the potential types of crises, challenges and unique characteristics of the operating climate change every time. We’ve found that even with organizations that have crisis plans in place, and senior managers who’ve been media-trained, it’s important to maintain constant vigilance against new communications challenges.

That’s what was on the mind of the senior leadership at an assisted living facility when they worked with us to develop an updated crisis communications plan.

The Approach

The approach we took was to conduct extensive interviews with key managers, staff members and other constituents to gain the best perspective on the types of possible crises that could happen, and to begin the process of analysis and prioritization on what challenges could be faced, what resources were available, and what resources may need to be added to effectively respond to the full range of crisis situations.

With that intelligence, and a treasure-trove of data from internal reporting, protocols and processes, and other background material, we were able to create an informational mosaic that enabled us to develop a crisis communications plan that was concise enough to be an actionable, useful resource in an actual crisis, while at the same time being extremely specific in the range of roles and responsibilities manager would assume during a crisis.

This particular crisis communications plan was developed to work in conjunction with other organizational and operational emergency response plans and policies.

The plan included the major levels of crisis categories, recommendations on monitoring and identification systems, an internal and external notification process, and the most efficient means for convening a crisis communications team in the minutes after, or even before a crisis situation unfolds.

Processes were created for mobilization and messaging, and then for implementation, scaled to meet the challenges of crises from mild to major.

After the crisis communications plan was complete, senior management, who were tapped with spokesperson duties, felt more comfortable and ready to engage in media coaching, which encompassed classroom-style training, along with role-playing and other interactive exercises.

This is a general overview of our approach. If you’d like to know more, or have a question of your own, we’d be glad to talk.  Please feel free to get in touch.

Beware of Some Social Media Crisis Experts

If you Google the term “social media crisis,” or even the term, “brand crisis,” you’ll probably find no shortage of advice columns or online videos on how to see your organization through a crisis. Typically, the authors or presenters are social media experts or marketing gurus.

What they usually are not are crisis communications veterans. In all too many cases, they may not have even handled a single crisis for a client. But that doesn’t stop them from offering free, speculative advice on how to handle your crisis situation.

Why?

A few reasons. First, the number of companies and organizations running into social media  and brand crises is increasing. The would-be experts see crisis management work as lucrative even if they don’t have experience. Second, they don’t know what they don’t know. And third, while some may have a good deal of experience in social media or marketing, in terms of defining characteristics, they tend to see a social media crisis as a social media situation, not a crisis situation. This is a very important distinction and can be a mistake. And fourth, they think they’ve read enough articles and books to compensate for their lack of genuine crisis management experience.

And all too many simply imagine what they would do if one of their clients were to get into a crisis, and based on that, they think they know what works and what doesn’t.

Here’s the problem. If you run into a crisis, whether it be a social media crisis, a brand crisis, a plant explosion, or a bankruptcy filing, the last person you want counseling you is someone with only an academic knowledge of crisis management. You want someone who’s been there.

The pitfall of hiring someone with little to no crisis experience is you’ll likely get cliché crisis management advice that may not apply to you, and could backfire on you. One of the most common assumptions non-crisis veterans make is that good faith wins the day. Just take responsibility, own the crisis, accept the premise of your critics and apologize, and everything will be fine, they say.

Don’t buy it.

A crisis communications veteran will likely have numerous examples where simply taking responsibility, apologizing, showing good faith, accepting the premise of your critics, and seeking engagement, backfired in any number of ways. Not because each in itself isn’t the right thing, but the one thing they are all lacking is a specific strategy that takes into account the particulars of each situation.

What if your critics are basing their attacks on a duplicitous agenda of their own fabrication? What if certain groups have decided to fake a narrative about your brand or organization that is so untrue, that to “take responsibility,” “acknowledge” and apologize only help them achieve their goals, which could be to smear and undermine your organization and anyone associated with it?

In other words, what far too many non-crisis communicators don’t fully appreciate is that entirely separate strategies may be required to counter unfair attacks, and that strategies of appeasement are ineffective.  And this is just one scenario.

The bottom line is this. If you are facing a crisis or a possible crisis, do your best to find a crisis communications veteran who’s done more than written an article, given a speech, or even written a book on the topic. Find someone who’s actually been in the trenches on crisis management.

An experienced crisis communicator will likely give you counsel that’s not cookie-cutter, not cliché, but in your best interest. More than likely, it will be effective, and that’s what counts.

New ‘Shaping Opinion’ Podcast Focuses on People, Events and Things that have Shaped the Way We Think

Click Here to Go to Podcast

Pittsburgh, PA, April 16, 2018 — O’Brien Communications has launched a new episodic podcast called Shaping Opinion.  The podcast features conversations between host Tim O’Brien and guests, where together they tell the stories of people, events and things that have shaped the way we think.

The first five episodes have already been posted to podcast feeds, in addition to the ShapingOpinion.com web site.  In the first episodes, Shaping Opinion shares the stories of a business meeting with Mister Rogers; the time Beech-Nut Packing hired PR pioneer Edward Bernays who in turn created America’s iconic bacon and eggs breakfast; some things you may not have heard about the time Prince decided to change his name to a symbol; the PR magic behind the Goodyear Blimp; and how the deaths of seven people after taking Tylenol in 1982 ushered in a new era for how companies and organizations respond to crises.

Subjects may range from sometimes the well-known, to forgotten, little-known, or under-appreciated stories, but always, they represent change. A turning point that marked a significant shaping of the way we think.

Shaping Opinion’s initial guests are: Mary Barber, Robin Teets, Elizabeth Flynn and Dan Keeney.

This is Episode 7 – About Shaping Opinion

Get Shaping Opinion

O’Brien Communications’ Shaping Opinion podcast is available on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play, Amazon Echo Dot, Radio Public, iHeart Radio, TuneIn  and where you find your favorite podcasts. You can follow Shaping Opinion on Twitter @ShapingOpinion, on Facebook and on LinkedIn, and you can get Shaping Opinion in your inbox. Show note pages at ShapingOpinion.com include bonus content, links and detailed information on each episode.

About O’Brien Communications

In 2017, Expertise.com recognized O’Brien Communications as one of the top 14 PR firms in Pittsburgh. Founded by Tim O’Brien in 2001, Pittsburgh-based O’Brien Communications builds its client service with a focus on: Corporate Communications & Strategic Planning; Marketing Communications; Public Relations & Media Relations; Content Development & Professional Writing; and Crisis & Issues Management. Clients have ranged from Fortune 500 corporations to nonprofits and emerging start-ups.  Learn more: @OBrienPR, www.OBrienCommunications.com

Facebook Privacy: A 2009 PR Strategist Article had a Point

In 2009, I wrote a piece for PRSA’s Public Relations Strategist on the dawn of social media and privacy issues. At the time, it made the rounds in PR ethics circles, but given the recent Facebook crisis, I thought I’d revisit it, nine years later. It still holds up, perhaps more now than ever:

PR Strategist – Ethics and Social Media – Spring 2009

“Social networking media are essentially a virtual gold mine for marketers and professional communicators. While social networking media platforms have created opportunity by enabling individuals and organizations to connect in exciting new ways, the offshoot of this activity — mountains of data — presents major new challenges for communications professionals, all rooted in the issue of privacy. The purpose of this is not to provide all of the answers, but rather to raise important questions about the issue of privacy so that the PR profession can lunge into this new era without blinders.”

 

 

How Private People Use Social Media

As PR people go, I may be more privacy-minded than most. Yes, I’m on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.  I have this website and this blog and a Vlog.

For the past few decades, I’ve spent most of my waking moments trying to get my clients, my organizations and sometimes myself visibility in the media and other places.

Yet for me there has always been a constant, which is that I’ve maintained very clear lines between my personal privacy and my work life.  To be sure, the arrival of the digital age has challenged that balance from time to time. Still, for the most part I can’t complain, and I know there are many, many people just like me.

That’s why it can be a huge mistake on the part of professional communicators to make snap judgements about demographics, consumer tastes, or public attitudes on certain issues primarily on the basis of what they see on social media. Unfortunately, many communicators base their decision-making on what’s trending on social media.  Unbeknownst to them, for all the analytics and machine-learning that’s out there prying into our online habits, there is still a vast amount of information you don’t see online and will never see.

With this in mind, using myself as a point of reference, I think I can tell you a little about how private people use social media.

We don’t post pictures.

I have one official photo of myself for all social media. It’s me in a suit and jacket with a tie. While I hardly ever wear a tie, you wouldn’t know that from my photo, and I’m fine with that. It’s a good photo, it’s accurate, and if we meet in business, that’s how I will look to you.

What you won’t see are photos of my family, of my vacations, of my Father’s Day party. As much as I admire people who post these things on their own social media pages (I really do), I find that as a private person, less is more for me. Along these same lines, I’ve become notorious among friends and family for making sure they “un-tag” me from any photos they post online.

While most of my reasons are rooted in my personal comfort level with privacy, I have also learned that in my line of work, some duplicitous orgs are not beyond searching the social media pages of their targets and their targets’ PR consultants to fabricate a narrative and create propaganda.

We don’t share personal tastes online.

Over the years, I’ve posted thousands of tweets, hundreds and hundreds (maybe thousands) of LinkedIn and Facebook posts, and any number of blog posts, and if that’s how you know me you probably won’t know my favorite foods, music, vacation spots, beverages, celebrities or movies.

What you will learn from my social media feed is I’m all about communications and business and to a lesser extent pop culture as it intersects with communications and business. I like football, baseball and college basketball. And every now and then, usually around a holiday, I’ll wax sentimental about my country, American history, Irish heritage and family.

I’ve been told that when I use social media to spout off about the terrible season the Pittsburgh Pirates are having, that’s called “social signaling.”  In other words, it’s there to let you know I have a life, too.  That sounds about right.

Private people don’t share tidbits from our own conversations or encounters.

Private people value our privacy so much that we wouldn’t think of repeating things other people say to us or around us.

I was reminded of this recently when I came across a social feed of a business person who apparently thinks it’s cute to share things he’s overheard at his workplace – usually comments that border on tastelessness.

That’s the kind of thing that makes private people like me a little queasy on a number of levels. First, even if you don’t attribute the words, you’re positioning yourself as a gossip, and your gossip is not reflecting well on you or your work environment.

Second, what seems harmless and fun to you on social media (outrageously funny?), can easily offend people you’ve never met but may want to meet some day. Is a little snark and crudeness worth turning off that potential client or employer without you ever knowing it?

But third and most important, our most valued currency is trust. Our clients, our coworkers, our management teams and other colleagues have to know they can trust us, and they’re more likely to trust those who practice discretion.  In the end, that’s what it’s all about. Privacy on social media is all about discretion. And discretion is all about trust.

So, why are private people on social media, anyway?

I’ll give you my answer in the hopes it’s on par with many other private people who use social media. While everyone’s reason may vary, this may provide some insight.

Because I’m in the public relations business, I do it because it’s my work. I need to know as much as possible about how social media works even if I’m not a fanatical “broadcaster” on social media myself. More importantly, I need to have a solid understanding of human behavior online. This is critical to what I do for a living.

I have found news feeds to be tremendously helpful at staying abreast of the latest news, information and trends.  I keep up with others, I keep up with my industry, with new developments, with my clients’ industries and competitors. Oftentimes when I post, I’m actually experimenting with a  strategy, a message or an approach.  I’m gauging reaction to what I post.  And not all of my posts are from my own accounts. I am very active on social media as the operator of other accounts.

So, the next time you see that Facebook headshot of the guy in the suit and tie, or the woman in business attire at a conference, consider this. Maybe, just maybe, they are not all-work-and-no-play. It’s quite possible that they believe the best stuff is kept offline. Sometimes a photo doesn’t say more than a couple of words, and that’s for the best.

Whose Truth Is It, Anyway?

I had an interesting interchange with a colleague, Karen Swim, President of Words for Hire in Detroit, on social media recently. The thing that prompted our discussion was her posting of this article from Forbes about a new analytics program called Protagonist which is claimed to help “better manage communications strategies.”

That sounds good, and if it does what it says it does it could be very meaningful, but I have my concerns for one simple reason. Computer programs are only as objective and (ironically) as analytical as the programmers who create them. If the creators have a very specific worldview, that worldview becomes the benchmark against what all other data will be analyzed and judged.

While I have not used the program in question, my point to Karen was that the red flag for me was that the program was described as being “free from bias.”

Karen’s thoughtful reply: “The issue is not in having biases, we all do, but acknowledging them and allowing for differing perspectives and opinions.”

Yes!!!

In recent weeks, I’ve seen countless articles on what were the big stories of 2017 and what were people’s predictions for 2018. I’ve learned not to try to predict, but there are some trends worth watching. One of them will be the continued evolution of technologies that are designed to replace human analytical thinking.

Consider artificial intelligence and machine learning. From self-driving cars to robots that can enter hazardous environments, sparing human lives. These all show great promise.

But before we surrender too much of our thinking to our digital minders, I’d offer this. When we start to dive deep into the development of communications strategies, when we have to identify biases, issues and concerns, in the end, we have to confront our own biases, our own worldviews and factor them into our own analysis of the data that’s before us.

This all starts with the acceptance of the notion that no one has exclusive claim to the truth. A respect for other points of view can be very situational, and very much based on emotion, morals and ethics in ways a software program cannot adequately take into account.

From there we can create context, the kind of context our clients and organizations need to make informed decisions. Not just factually informed decisions based on algorithms and what attitudes seem to be trending online. Rather, the best communications decisions are ones that are informed by offline factors such as emotion, experience, common sense, empathy and an understanding of human nature that all still rely on skilled and experienced professionals to interpret and manage.

A PR Clinic in the Snow: Christmas Lessons at 6th and Grant

I’m not sure when school let out right before Christmas break, but I do remember a few times on the last school day before Christmas I was able to rush home and then with my mom take the trolley to Downtown before my dad finished work.

For me and just about every other kid, Downtown was the place to be around the holidays. There were three major department stores – Gimbel’s, Joseph Horne’s, and Kaufmann’s – and usually depending on which one was closest to your trolley or bus stop, that was your family’s go-to place. Ours was Gimbel’s.

As you approached the store in the dark and the cold, you’d be greeted by those well-lit and colorful Christmas dioramas in the windows. You’d start to feel the warmth even before you spun through those heavy brass revolving doors.

Bright lights, and garland of red and green, gold and silver, blue and purple, all glittering and sparkling everywhere you looked, and shiny new things that my mom said not to even think about wanting. The 11th floor at the top of the escalator was my destination, even long after the reality of Santa Claus had set in. That was where they had the good stuff.

After that, we’d hit the lunch counter at a nearby restaurant which had the best hamburger, chocolate milk and French fries you could want.

But before all of this Christmas sensory overload, we’d stop by the corner of Pittsburgh’s Sixth Avenue and Grant Street, right in front of the William Penn Hotel. That’s where I’d watch my dad work for a few minutes before he’d visit with us. He was a traffic cop who seemed more like the host of a constantly unfolding social event, rather than just someone who pointed cars and trucks in the right direction.

There always seemed to be someone else standing on one of the four corners of the intersection wanting his attention, wanting to talk to him about something. I’d watch him get traffic moving and then make his way over to whomever seemed to have a need.

That mom and her kids across from me wanted him to give them directions. Another man asked my dad if he knew a good place for shoe repair. A college student wanted to know where to get a good fish sandwich. A young man in a Marine uniform asked my dad if the Pittsburgh Police Department would be hiring new officers soon. These were the little things, and they were non-stop.

Sometimes he’d tell me about other things people approached him about. He once told me about a woman who had passed by his corner for years with nothing more than a smile and a pleasant “Hello.” But one day, she stopped to talk. She told him that her adult son had gotten into some trouble and she didn’t know where to turn. He gave her the names of some people he thought could help. Not coincidentally, these, too, were people he had met and gotten to know on this very corner.

Doctors and lawyers, executives and CEOs, bus and delivery drivers. As their routine took them through the intersection of Sixth and Grant, sooner or later many got to know my dad and all were the better for it. He was a visitor’s bureau with a badge, who every now and then had to keep the peace along with direct traffic, and he loved just about every minute of it. Anyone who knew him would tell you that.

At Christmas, people who walked by his corner seemed to have the holiday spirit and the mood was always upbeat.  There is something about seeing your dad do his thing out in the world when you’re a young boy. As I watched my dad in action, he seemed larger than life. I was proud of him.

He was in his element. Almost no one got away from him without a handshake or a pat on the shoulder.

So, what does this all mean to PR?

My dad gave me a lot of good advice over the years, but it was probably his example that taught me the most. This was most predictably evident when I watched him do his job.

To him it wasn’t about directing traffic. It was about people. It was about being a goodwill ambassador. It was about helping. Clearly when I think about it, he understood as much as anyone the value in helping people connect with each other in meaningful ways. He created community.

That’s the life lesson I learned without a word in the falling snow on the corner of Sixth and Grant during the Christmas season.

One Question that Would Change the Tone of Protest Coverage

When it comes to the media and protestors alike, protests can be big business.

Media coverage of protests tends to generate consistently high ratings, page clicks and readership, which attracts more ad revenue. And when it comes to the protests themselves, in an increasing number of cases there is more than meets the eye. In some instances there is the stated reason for the protest, such as a common environmental or a safety concern, and then the unstated reasons that may better explain why someone was willing to make an investment of thousands if not millions of dollars to prop up the protestors.

The professional-protest economy has gotten very good at creating made-for-TV and made-for-social media events. The recipe is simple.

  • Form a group around a theme that makes it look like you’re a victim or that you stand on morally higher ground than everyone else.
  • Obtain funding for that group from an activist foundation. Or, not uncommonly, it’s the funder itself that conceives of the whole thing, from the theme of the cause and the creation of the protest group, to of course its branding. #GottaHaveAHashtag
  • Create the core organization by paying professional activists to lead, organize and recruit others, and then be willing to pay who you need to make a show of it at protest events.
  • You can target third-party events like a company’s annual meeting or an industry convention, or you can create your own events. The beauty of any protest is that with the right camera angle, you can make 20 people with signs look like popular opinion.
  • If you’re having trouble recruiting people to your cause, simply run an ad on Craigslist looking for “paid volunteers,” which is an oxymoron. You can’t be a volunteer if someone’s paying you. That would make you an employee or paid contractor. More on that in a moment.
  • With a core group of “paid volunteers” you have a better chance of recruiting others who are willing to join a protest to be a part of something, or to just be where the action is.
  • Promote it all on social media and blanket the traditional media with your publicity outreach.

And there you have it, a protest-in-a-box.

The current protest model is based on a tried and true formula and counts on the general media’s need to drive ratings and readership by depicting volatile events as though they represent a popular uprising.

The prevalent and outdated assumption in this kind of media coverage is that these events spring up from the grassroots (Professional protests do not); that the participants are only there because they believe in the cause and not because they are paid (Increasingly many are being paid for the very act of protesting); and that their presence indicates they are willing to risk their jobs or studies for something bigger than themselves (Many don’t have jobs, or are still under the finances of their parents, and many of their professors actually encourage them to join the protests).

In other words, while the professional protest formula follows a very 21st Century template, media coverage of these same protests is still rooted in a 1960s narrative, one that automatically assigns hero status to just about anyone willing to block traffic.

One Question that Could Change Everything

If the general media wanted to bring its coverage of many of today’s protests into the 21st Century – if for any other reason than to be responsibly accurate – journalists would ask protestors one question and then base their coverage on the response. That question?

Who’s paying you to be here?

To be sure, many protestors aren’t paid at all and truly have bought into the cause of whatever it is they are against. Others who may be paid, still may have no idea where the money originates. But make no mistake, in more cases than you may realize there is a money trail if you are inclined to look for it.

If journalists ask this question of event spokespersons and other leaders every time, they might start to see a more clear and consistent pattern.

If a journalist makes sure to know which interviewees are paid and by whom – by asking directly or doing some investigative work – it would shape coverage with the same sort of accuracy as when the same journalist asks corporate spokespersons for their names and titles. In both instances, the valid premise of the question is to provide context that’s based on the motives and self-interest of those involved.

This shouldn’t be too much to expect this since it’s largely regarded as normal journalistic practice when protestors are not involved. But it seems that when they are involved, they get a pass. Just calling themselves “protestors” is enough to give them automatic immunity from standard journalistic scrutiny.

Protestors as Rock Stars

I once happened to be at an event where a group of grungy environmental protestors led a rally where they played acoustic guitars and ladled barley soup to the crowd. On stage it was a mini Woodstock.  They gave the visual impression they could have made their way to the event by hitchhiking, riding bikes or traveling communally in beat up old school buses.

What the crowd didn’t see, but I did, right around the corner was a parked caravan of shiny new, air-conditioned tour buses fit for Bruno Mars and his band. This is where the 21st Century “hippies” retreated to presumably to cool off, drink and eat something better than barley soup, and expand their carbon footprint. The behind-the-scenes infrastructure looked less like that of a group of grassroots environmental protestors, and much more like one suited for a million-dollar, gas-guzzling traveling circus.

If the media wanted to report on the very high-dollar feel of this organization, all it had to do was walk around the corner and just watch, just as I did. But if it did, that would have blown the narrative.

So, if you happen to be a reporter, I’d challenge you in the name of accuracy, to make sure to ask every protestor you come across a simple question, and be willing to use the facts involved to shape your story. Ask, “Who’s paying you to be here?”

President Lincoln’s Thanksgiving: A Healing Holiday

The following post originally ran on November 20, 2012 on PR, Pure & Simple:

It was just a few years ago that I learned the Thanksgiving holiday as we know it today, at least the parts where the Dallas Cowboys and Detroit Lions aren’t playing football, is actually rooted in a decision by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863. That’s when the holiday became an annual tradition.

Here’s the story.

Thanksgiving is always celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November. It is a uniquely American holiday. Back in 1863, while the Civil War was still raging, President Lincoln proclaimed a national day of “Thanksgiving and praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.” While not a religious holiday, per se, it had significant spiritual significance at the time, and served as the kickoff to the holiday season that went through Christmas to the New Year.

As our history books tell us, the first Thanksgiving was held by the Pilgrims to celebrate their first harvest in their new land in 1621.

However, during the Civil War, the president read a series of editorials written by Sarah Josepha Hale, which called for a national Thanksgiving Day to be celebrated the last Thursday in November of 1863. As a result, he decided to make her proposition an annual tradition throughout the country.

The rationale behind the holiday was to start to help create a sense of unity. In his proclamation of the event, President Lincoln pointed out the things for which Americans had to be thankful to God, including “fruitful fields,” the continued peace with foreign nations, and the continued preservation of the union.
Some historians have said that with the nation so divided at the time, as was pointed out by the president in his proclamation, it appeared the intent was to create a vision for a unified nation, living in peace, sharing the same values of God, family and country.

To Mr. Lincoln, the thought of giving thanks would have been an incomplete one if not to join together in appreciation for “the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.”

In that proclamation, Mr. Lincoln touched on many of the issues the country faced in its war between the states, including the effect it was having on families. He extended his particular sympathies to the widows and orphans created by the war.

To add context to this, it’s important to note that one week before the first national Thanksgiving holiday, the president traveled north of Washington, D.C., to deliver his remarks at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg. This was the site of the bloodiest battle of the war and was devastating to both sides. Both armies suffered a total of over 50,000 casualties. As Mr. Lincoln delivered his remarks five months into the aftermath of the three-day battle, some of the dead still were not buried.

To read his Gettysburg Address, and then to read his proclamation of the first Thanksgiving holiday, you can get a more complete sense of the mood of the country, and perhaps get a glimpse of Mr. Lincoln’s frame of mind at that time. While these were extremely powerful leadership documents, there is a high degree of introspection and sentimentality contained in both.

I found them both to be worthwhile in my own reflection of what I happen to be thankful for on this Thanksgiving holiday. As I read these words from Mr. Lincoln, however, I realize not much tends to change. I too, am thankful for my faith, family and a wonderful country to call home. And that’s just for starters. Wishing you much for which to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving!

PR will be at the Intersection of Artificial Intelligence and Ethics

The World Economic Forum (WEF),  one year ago, identified the nine most pressing ethical issues we face as artificial intelligence (AI) transitions from science fiction to our everyday reality.

This matters in public relations, because inevitably we will find ourselves at the intersection of AI and its effects on people. We can expect much of the conversation to center on the ethical issues at play.

Here are the nine ethical issues the WEF identified:

  1. Unemployment. What happens at the end of jobs?
  2. Inequality. How do we distribute wealth created by machines?
  3. Humanity. How do machines affect our behavior and interaction?
  4. Artificial Stupidity. How can we guard against mistakes?
  5. Racist Robots. How do we eliminate AI bias?
  6. Security. How do we keep AI safe from adversaries?
  7. Evil Genies. How do we protect against unintended consequences?
  8. Singularity. How do we stay in control of a complex intelligent system?
  9. Robot Rights. How do we define humane treatment of AI?

Every one of these questions is serious, real and provocative. These are issues that will present themselves whether our leaders address them preemptively or not. Anyone who has “public relations” or “communications” in his or her title will be required to explain what it all means.

You may be that person.

For this reason, it may be worth examining how the climate for communications could take shape. Obviously, no effective communication can happen without a solid grasp of the technologies at play. Further, it will require a mastery of ethics at several depths, from basic human ethics and morality, to the ethics of behaviors in business, in government and in communications.

But before we even try to wrap our heads around all of that, we will need a fundamental centeredness that begins with our own individual moral compass. Personally, we need to have a clear idea about right and wrong, and an instinctive sense of pragmatism. Or to put it more simply, I’ll use the words of my late father: “You need to use the good common sense God gave you.”

Common Sense and those Nine Questions

The underlying theme or the premise of each WEF question relies on the belief that we can control all of the variables that will determine the outcome. Since we don’t, and therefore we can’t, the common sense answer to all nine questions above is, “You don’t.”

AI is man-made but once it starts to take on a life of its own, control over its evolution will become much more fragmented and difficult to achieve. Of course, society must do everything it can to influence positive outcomes, but for those of us in charge of communications, the first mistake we can make is to agree with what appears to be the WEF’s premise that a singular group or body is qualified to define what’s right and wrong for everyone else. But perhaps just as importantly, even if there was one, that it could deliver.

“End of Jobs?”

AI visionaries predict that employment as we know it will end. They are probably right in the same way as those who might have predicted an end to transportation jobs when blacksmiths were replaced by automobile mechanics, or when telephone operators were replaced by automatic switches, or when elevator operators were replaced by … buttons.

It is probably true that society will need to brace itself for yet another revolution in the way we work, perhaps on a par with the transformation from an agricultural economy to an industrial one, and then many decades later to an informational one. But “end of jobs” sounds a bit melodramatic.

Our role in public relations will be to assess at every step the impact of AI on the work force and help explain not only how that impact is taking shape, but also where the new opportunities may be as work itself continues to evolve. We’ve done this many times before. It’s one of our strengths and probably the one area where the communications profession is most prepared to step in and pave the way for AI.

Who gets to define “inequality?”

We learned in history class or political science class or economics class about the basic systems for governing and economics. Some are pretty straightforward. Under dictatorships or monarchies, the lines of inequality are pretty clear. You have the few who make all the decisions on “wealth distribution,” and then you have everyone else who are not deemed as “equal” or deserving.

Under communist and socialist regimes over the past 100 years you had what was written on paper, and then you had those theories put into practice, which usually ends up in some form or fashion like what I just described in the previous paragraph.

Because a free and democratic society is founded on the rights individuals possess, there is a key distinction between rights and outcomes. Economically, we have a right to work or start a business, but it’s on us to go out and earn. The system (in the U.S.) is structured to assure us the right to earn, but not the entitlement to receive. Of course, governments have certain entitlement programs, but the economic engines that drive growth, prosperity and feed tax coffers rely on income- and revenue-generation. With this in mind, it is largely assumed that the distribution of wealth is self-determined and based on all of the factors that go into making a living.

For PR pros, the major issues with the question about how to distribute wealth created by machines is to accept the premise that an individual or a small group of individuals should be given the power and authority to decide on how to allocate wealth and to whom. There will most likely be public relations professionals on all sides of these issues.

Machine Impacts on Human Behavior

Perhaps the most common and pressing issue that public relations professionals will face as AI is integrated more deeply into our daily lives will be the impact those machines will have on our own human behavior and interaction.

All you have to do is sit in the food court of any shopping mall and you’ll see the how machines are changing human interaction. Watch a bunch of teens stare at their phones instead of talking to each other, or stroll by the increasing numbers of empty storefronts in the mall thanks to the rising dominance of ecommerce.

At every turn in this evolution, it will be PR’s job to educate, persuade and inform on the full range of issues where new technologies continue to change the way humans interact with each other.

Artificial Stupidity: Guarding against mistakes?

This, we know. AI is only as good as its makers, and its makers are human and therefore imperfect. It’s not hard to imagine a world reliant on self-driving cars, where some of those cars kill people. It’s equally easy to envision an AI-controlled drone every now and then falling from the sky, putting people’s safety at risk. And did I mention invasion-of-privacy issues?

Over the decades, society has learned to accept certain trade-offs with increased automation. Goals are usually to minimize mistakes with the understanding that perfection is not attainable. What makes this issue even more challenging is the scale of power and influence AI has the potential to wield. Grids can be affected. Entire cities and regions. Millions of people can be more readily impacted by a singular event.

For communicators, one major dynamic will change – accountability.

Until now, human accountability has always been the cornerstone of ethical decision-making and behavior. When something goes wrong, we immediately and innately look for the humans in responsibility to address the issue. And to do the right thing, those humans rely on their own survival instincts, from something as basic as wanting to physically survive a crisis, to the more common motivations of fear of being criminally prosecuted, fear of being sued, or fear of being fired from a job.

AI removes all of these emotions and dynamics and puts a disconcerting buffer between responsible humans and decision-making. This presents big challenges for communications professionals, who will still be required to look for accountable parties, people who will be held responsible when machines make bad decisions. PR will have to play a role in sorting that out.

AI and Bias

The WEF points out that Google had some problems of its own with AI and how it was used to predict future criminals. Apparently, Google’s AI showed bias against African Americans.

Before getting into the bias of the technology, it’s worth asking a more fundamental ethics question: Who gave Google the right to predict criminal behavior based on appearances?

At the moment, it’s assumed AI is not our justice system and that we have a right to expect assumptions of innocence until guilt is proven. In other words, we have a highly regulated justice system of checks and balances, which is designed to be slow and deliberate.

So, a reliance on algorithms to predict criminal behavior based on appearances can lead to all sorts of issues that can create or perpetuate AI-driven stereotypes across all demographics in any number of situations.

As a result, it’s quite possible that in the future when AI is involved, one of our most important roles may be to give voice to the concern that an organization may be relying too heavily on value judgements made by machines.

Keeping AI from Adversaries

The WEF is concerned that evil people may see AI as a powerful new weapon in their arsenal. This concern is not only valid but probably as serious as conventional policies to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of the bad guys. The problem is, AI may eventually be so ubiquitous that to try to “keep it” from adversaries may not be realistic.

In the PR profession, our role may be to sound the alarm on issues as they relate to policy. This will allow decision-makers to better create policies that favor the good AI can do for the world, while not underestimating the bad it can do in the wrong hands.

What if AI Turns Against Us?

Mary Shelley wrote the iconic Frankenstein story in 1818, 200 years ago, and it’s even more relevant today when we contemplate the power and the risks of AI.  In that story, Dr. Victor Frankenstein creates a monster that eventually turns against him, its creator. No longer science fiction, today scientists are creating machines that learn and decide and learn again. They control other machines and the many mechanisms that allow society to function.

The WEF cites one of the most classic concerns of science fiction authors: What if the machines turn against us?

Rather than assign nefarious motives, the WEF points to the real possibility that through some sort of glitch or misunderstanding in programming, a machine could misinterpret stimulus, data, an image or the very presence of a human, and make an errant decision causing harm.

As with other scenarios, it may the role of communications professionals to speak up when they see the potential for human risk and how that risk could play out.

What if the Machine Becomes Smarter than Us?

The difference between humans and all other beings on Earth, says the WEF, is our intelligence. So, the ethical question becomes, “What could happen if the machine becomes ‘smarter’ than its creator?”

This question appears to raise the issue of whether technology policy-making in the future will call for a figurative “kill switch” to be built into any AI technology to serve as a means to shut down a system before it can do much damage.

Public relations professionals will play an important role in the debate over how such policies should be crafted and enforced, and eventually implemented.

What if Machines Develop Feelings?

The final WEF question entertains the extreme notion that robots could (should?) have rights not unlike human or animal rights and that machines could deserve “humane treatment.” To give this question serious consideration, we would have to accept the premise that machines are “living” beings with feelings.

At the moment, and with so many other higher priorities when it comes to AI, assigning feelings to machines and then assigning them the same rights as humans may be a bridge too far. It’s probably best to let the next generation of PR pros deal with that.

So, what do you think? What are the most pressing communications issues we could face as AI continues to penetrate our daily lives?