PR and AI – It’s Time to Down Tools and Look Up
The PR Cavalry
Anyone reading the wave of articles about AI and PR would be forgiven for thinking that we are humble workers at the coalface, excited by the arrival of sharper pickaxes and trying not to look at those digging machines in the shadows.
It’s more than tools.
Up above in the daylight, there is a far bigger debate that will define our industry and our clients’ industries and no-one knows who will win. That is where the real AI opportunity for PR can be found.
This is not to dismiss the discussion of tools or the tools themselves, but they will only ever be the tactical, end of pipeline, manifestation of the changes AI will bring.
AI accelerates the development of a “technopolar” rather than the “great powers” geopolitical world that has shaped the laws and ordered way of doing things we and our clients abide by. To take just one example of that, AI cuts across copyright laws in ways that industries are only just beginning to grapple with.
Technology companies grow in power alongside and in some cases ahead of sovereign states and the geopolitical order is now scrambling to make sense of AI in the Hiroshima AI Process, the first AI specific laws from the EU and in July the UN calling for a global AI watchdog.
These efforts face a dilemma: do governments and regulators lean in to the power of AI to obtain political and economic advantage or try to stifle it as a threat?
Both approaches face the same problem, that AI does not lend itself to traditional regulatory frameworks because the technology is evolving faster than any legislative process and it is decentralised; tech companies, being knowledge rather than resource dependent can switch location to where the local governance is more sympathetic.
To get a sense of the pace of evolution, Chat GPT1 had 117 million parameters at launch in 2018. Chat GPT 4 has one trillion. Moore’s Law looks rather quaint by comparison.
To get a sense of scale of the big tech companies Just six companies represent more than half the value of the NASDAQ.
By contrast GDPR took about 10 years to become law. The EU AI Act aims to become law three years from now.
What is PR’s Role in AI Regulation?
To bring that back to PR for a moment, everything we do, even at the simplest tactical level is regulated in some way so this, rather than a discussion of tools is the essence of what AI means for PR.
The picture is of course totally unclear.
The capabilities of AI are unknown so how do you create international, national or industry level regulations that make sense or even have any force if AI, a global phenomenon, is regulated differently in different states?
Where it matters most to our industry is where PR is not a tactical activity deciding which tool will deliver marginal efficiencies of effort, but where it is a management discipline which shapes not only the organisation itself, but where PR is directed at shaping the industry in which the organisation operates.
PR consultants simply have to do the hard yards now of understanding how regulators of their clients’ industries are approaching AI and then advising their clients to engage accordingly. You can be certain that law firms are investing this time and intellect and charging their clients handsomely for doing so.
If PR sits back and waits to be told, it cannot then complain when it is handed the tools and told to make the best of it.
The other dimension for PR, far removed from tools to make our lives easier is the proliferation of the technology itself, creating new risks of bad actors using AI maliciously, particularly as the cost of access to powerful processing capacity falls. Think of it as going from the invention of the printing press to desktop computing in a generation.
AI driven misinformation, surveillance, privacy violations, disruption of digital services and so on are new operational and reputational threats that already belong on a risk register and even the shiniest tool will have limited use in defending against them if they are not understood at the outset.
There are then the unknown unknowns; harms we don’t yet know are coming. Can we plan for them? No. Can we set a watch for them? Yes.
National and international institutions are struggling to understand where to sit on the promote/constrain axis and whether the tech companies should be partners in developing regulation. There is some logic in having the tech companies in the room as governors of digital rather than geographic spaces, with nations having the ultimate veto.
If the tech companies are shaping the process, who else should be? Your client? Your industry body (briefed by your client)?
Leaders and followers will be sifted out.
There are models to draw on – pharmaceutical regulation is one. Technology at the global scale that promises transformational benefits but also the risk of widespread harm. A better example is probably climate change and in particular the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change which equips policymakers with the science to understand.
Ultimately no-one knows.
The PR industry can choose to be passive or it can invest its efforts in shaping industry responses and also being expert, vigilant look outs for the threats that are surely coming.