The recent strikes by the Screen Actors Guild‐American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA) sent shockwaves through the entertainment industry, but their impact extends far beyond Hollywood.

The strikes began on 14 July 2023 as the actors’ union and AMPTP (the representative body for film and television studios) could not settle on a new contract. This strike also coincided with the Writers Guild of America (WGA) strike, and so Hollywood was at a standstill until a deal was finalised on 9 November. The actors were fighting for multiple changes throughout the industry, with a key issue being consent over artificial intelligence and increased residuals. AI was also a key sticking point in the WGA strike negotiations, with the eventual deal stating that it cannot be used to rewrite scripts.

But the influence of the strikes extends far beyond bigger pay checks for actors. The strikes, driven by concerns over fair compensation and working conditions, have highlighted broader issues surrounding the relationship between technology (AI in particular) and labour.

Companies across various sectors have been exploring AI applications for efficiency, cost savings, and innovation. However there’s a growing awareness of how the use of AI might be influenced by the evolving dynamics between workers and employers. Fear of job displacement and concerns over worker welfare have created a complex narrative across all industries.

The strikes, and the subsequent deal between all parties, highlight a crucial perspective: the role of AI should be collaborative, working in tandem with human capabilities rather than replacing them. Companies may find it necessary to invest in programmes that equip employees with the skills to collaborate with AI systems, ensuring that technology enhances their productivity. Different industries should use this moment to foster cross-sector collaboration. Sharing insights and best practices on AI adoption, ethical considerations, and workforce integration can lead to a more harmonious and responsible approach to technological advancement.

The ethical use of AI is a growing concern for both the public and industry leaders. These strikes further stress the importance of aligning AI adoption with social responsibility. Companies may now be more inclined to evaluate the impact of AI on their employees and society at large, taking steps to mitigate negative consequences.

The SAG-AFTRA strikes, while rooted in the entertainment industry, reverberate across sectors and countries as a reminder of the complex relationship between technology, labour, and societal values.

In a time when brands are facing reputational challenges over greenwashing accusations, Patagonia has remained authentic to its environmental responsibilities through a simple, but definitive statement – that it is not a sustainable brand.

Last year, Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard announced the radical move to give the company away to a trust, with all future profits going towards climate crisis initiatives. While consumers are rightfully sceptical when it comes to trusting brands’ environmental claims, Patagonia demonstrates how brands can be active participants in the battle against climate change.

Sustainability from the start

Sustainability has been at the forefront of Patagonia since the beginning. Even when the company only existed as an equipment catalogue, it encouraged customers to ditch its pitons, after noticing rock-faces were being damaged with its use. Since 1985, it has been donating 1% of its annual sales to fight climate change and went one step further by establishing ‘1% for the Planet’, encouraging other companies to adopt similar policies. 

For Patagonia, it’s been essential that its messaging strategy should not just promote the brand’s products, but also actively encourage environmentally positive actions. This philosophy is evident across campaigns such as ‘Don’t Buy This Jacket’. However, there is a contradictory nature in wanting to be sustainable, but also having revenue growth as a business imperative. Authenticity is felt when a brand, like Patagonia, tells its customers that its product shouldn’t come at the expense of the environment. It communicates a message that the company is willing to sacrifice profits for a greater purpose, and reassures its consumers that product is built with quality in mind.

In March, Patagonia launched a campaign establishing the principal messaging defining its future aims with “What’s next?”. Companies that rest on their laurels, despite how successful they have been previously, eventually face backlash for lack of action. Effectively communicating that the business has clear future environmental plans assures consumers that your company is in it for the long haul.

The Patagonia paradox

“Never being done” is the ethos that guides Patagonia. It’s the idea that to truly have a positive effect, you not only need to continuously invest resources, but need to reflect on your company’s negative impact on the planet. [SJ1] No business-for-profit is perfectly sustainable, but Patagonia understands that this does not negate the fact that the private-sector can have a positive environmental impact. 

This all starts with an open and transparent communication strategy. Patagonia understands that accountability is the first step in winning consumer trust. After revealing that 95% of its carbon emissions come from its supply chain, it’s looking for ways to offset this by increasing second-hand materials and restricting product-line output.

Patagonia also set-up a “joint funding mechanism” where smaller brands can partner up. Notably, the company states it only has an inclination this will work, with no guarantee of results. In a time when many marketers are concerned with projects being accused of ‘greenwashing’, Patagonia presents an alternative through transparent communication. 

Purpose-driven practices 

Patagonia’s driving narrative resonates with so many because it remains ethically consistent, and this can be felt across every aspect of the business. If a brand truly wants to be sustainable, it will need to integrate planet-first policies widely into every part of its organisation. This includes being transparent about sustainability issues. Reputational risk that comes with hiding environmental issues far outweighs the backlash of being transparent with where improvements are needed.

Being perfectly sustainable is impossible, but communicating where the company plans to improve and invest, shows your organisation is serious about tackling climate challenges.

ESG is big on the comms agenda but it’s a complex subject. It’s not just about addressing a company’s ‘environmental’ impact.

ESG is short for Environmental, Social, Governance, so there are a host of wrap around components, like skills development, workforce reform or equality and social impact on communities. An ESG programme ultimately serves as a framework for measuring the sustainability and ethical impact of a company’s operations. Due to its complexity, breaking ESG down for your audience is vital, whether that be clients, prospects, employees or investors.

Seeing as April is Earth Month, let’s unpack the E in ESG – environment – and the comms challenges that surround that element.

Greenwashing

Companies are increasingly being called out for greenwashing when their ESG comms lacks substance or is seemingly a PR stunt. What should be communicated is proper progress, plans and even challenges.

A report recently published by the IPCC reinforces the urgency of taking more ambitious action around decarbonisation. According to the report, to keep within the 1.5°C global warming limit, emissions need to be reduced by at least 43% by 2030 and at least 60% by 2035. Granted, we have a long way to go but every effort contributes to the overall impact and there are a number of steps companies can take to break down the barriers to decarbonisation.

Instead of trying to be all things to everyone and painting a picture of a perfect organisation with a faultless ESG programme, openness is the best policy. Rather zone in on the one or two things that you as an organisation are doing well and communicate this effectively, acknowledging there is always more to be done and that you have a roadmap. Sharing your journey will resonate with others in your position and they will be appreciative of the advice and learnings.

Green hushing on the rise

On the flip side, green hushing is on the rise due to companies fearing scrutiny of their stated targets and facing accusations, or even lawsuits around greenwashing. A Swiss carbon finance consultancy South Pole surveyed over 1,200 self-professed “heavy-emitting” companies across 12 countries, and their report revealed that 25% of respondents were “keeping quiet” about their science-based climate goals. These companies have mostly set themselves net-zero targets but just aren’t publicising them.

We get it – organisations are opting to withhold information on their climate strategy for fear that releasing it will bring some form of reputational risk to their company, but radio silence may not be the way to go.

By not divulging any information, companies may be perceived as hiding something or already greenwashing which could also pose reputational risk and put them at odds with their stakeholders.

ESG influencing employee decisions  

No doubt, there is pressure to address the climate crisis, with personal views on sustainability and environmental impact now being carried through into the workplace and influencing employee decisions. In a recent Yale survey, 51% of 2,000 business students said that they would accept a lower salary to work for a more environmentally responsible organisation. Employees are now more willing to leave their jobs, otherwise known as conscious quitting, if they feel an organisation’s ESG commitments are lacking.

Interestingly, research by Cornerstone, revealed that employee demand for corporate responsibility and workplace sustainability learning content increased by 100% from 2021 to 2022 – indicating a gap between company sustainability policies and employees’ understanding of how to support those policies. Companies should create a common language and understanding within their organisation, and the first step in achieving that is through communication. Who better to be your environmental advocates than your employees.

Keep it real!

ESG should be more than good intentions, which should be reflected in a company’s communications plan. It’s about communicating a tangible, practical plan that is achieving real results. ‘Fake it until you make it’ should certainly not form part of your ESG comms plan. Our advice? Have a voice, be consistent and be authentic!

Most of us who frequent social media platforms will have probably given in to the recommendations of an influencer in one way or another. Whether it be an Amazon gadget or a new trending celeb recipe, influencers have the power to impact decisions of consumers across all age groups.

Over the years, influencer marketing has been on the rise. In 2021, 44% of B2C brands in Europe said they planned to increase their influencer marketing budget. What was a $1.7 billion industry, in 2016 has since grown to become worth $16 billion in 2022, with expectations for it to grow to $21 billion this year. But with all the emphasis put on these influencers to build a brand’s reputation, what are the implications if this falls apart? The new ‘de-influencer’ trend might be the first sign of cracks in the influencer world.

So far, the de-influencing hashtag has garnered 180 million TikTok views since the trend began in January this year. De-influencing is when content creators uncover the truth about products consumers have been pushed to purchase, all in a bid to address overconsumption.

Like consumers, businesses face difficulties in the current economic climate. Layoffs have continued to dominate the headlines, putting the decisions of business leaders centre stage – they’re not only being judged by their employees but the general public too. In a similar vein, the de-influencer movement gives consumers the ‘right information’ they need to make better decisions with their money. Society craves authenticity, and with ‘cancel culture’ still present, no brand or business is safe from judgment. The jury is fierce and they take no prisoners. Now more than ever, shaping reputation is crucial.

This isn’t the first sign of consumers becoming savvier to how and where they should be spending their money. During the last decade we saw a huge rise in the importance of a business having the right ESG credentials, driven not only by government regulation but also investor and stakeholder demand. However, ESG’s critics believe that companies are using the loosely defined term to “greenwash,” or make unrealistic or misleading claims, especially about their environmental credentials.

As B2B marketing strategies look to use business influencers on TikTok to complement product content on LinkedIn, they must ensure they know exactly who their audiences are and more importantly use the right influencers. After all, partnering with the wrong influencer can dramatically affect a brand’s credibility and ruin its reputation.

Whilst the de-influencer movement isn’t completely exempt from its own criticism of its authenticity, it’s brought up some really important conversations. It’s provided us with the space we need to stop and think about our decisions more closely, focusing on becoming better humans overall. As consumers, investors and end users are all focused on making the right  decisions – whether it’s buying a dress from an environmentally charged retailer or investing in the most ethical AI driven product – businesses should focus on creating clear and concise messaging and communicating through the most effective means possible.

Zooming out of the detail of these trends to looking at a company’s reputation as a whole, it’s important for leaders in comms to build meaningful relationships based on trust. This trust influences more than just purchasing, permeating all aspects of the company. There’s nowhere for organisations to hide, and any step of the way there’s judgement, so shaping a reputation in this new era, is about gaining trust through a comms strategy that puts transparency and authenticity at the forefront. 

Happy Pride Month! No doubt we’ve all seen a flurry of rainbow flags hit our social media feeds this month, along with several hit inclusive campaigns in the media. Some of my personal favourites include the gender-neutral shaving campaign from Harry’s and Flamingo, and Absolut Vodka’s out and open campaign.

What do these excellent campaigns have in common? To put it simply, they engage in brand reputation shaping, rather than so-called ‘rainbow washing’ – using rainbow colours and imagery to suggest to consumers that a brand supports LGBTQ+ equality, without backing these campaigns up with concrete action.

When done right, Pride Month can be a special time to uplift the actions your organisation is doing for the LGBTQ+ community all year round, contributing to an overall inclusive reputation. But when done poorly, Pride campaigns can at best look cheap, and at worst, reflect tokenism.

Why leverage Pride Month for inclusive campaigns?

It’s easy to see why brands choose to jump on the Pride bandwagon for their campaigns. Globally, the LGBTQ+ community possesses a whopping $3.7 trillion in purchasing power. Brands looking to increase their revenue want to market to LGBTQ+ consumers and can be led to believe that Pride Month is the appropriate time to do so.

This isn’t a million miles away from the truth. Events like Pride seek to uncover the stories of marginalised communities, which is evidently a noble cause. And as is the case with Pride, often such dates have historical relevance, marking events that may otherwise fly under the radar.

The issue therefore isn’t that brands are honouring Pride Month. On the contrary, the more people that celebrate Pride, the more effective the month becomes. Marking Pride becomes an issue when it’s done only to drive sales in one specific month, and when LGBTQ+ inclusivity is not part of an organisation’s longer-term reputation programme.  

How can organisations do better this Pride Month and beyond?

It’s clear that a one-off, tokenistic Pride Month campaign isn’t the right way to go when it comes to building an inclusive company reputation. Instead, businesses should focus on implementing genuine, year-round strategies to support marginalised communities, and match these efforts with appropriate PR campaigns. Here are some concrete examples for organisations to consider:

  • Do work with the LGBTQ+ community to create inclusive campaigns. PR and comms professionals may be the ones strategizing and writing, but it’s your LGBTQ+ colleagues who are most qualified to speak about LGBTQ+ topics.
  • Don’t stick a Pride flag on your website and call it a day. Not only does it appear tokenistic but can be seen as co-opting the deeply symbolic and personal meaning behind LGBTQ+ symbols.
  • Do consider donating a portion of your profits to LGBTQ+ non-profits. This especially goes for those introducing Pride or otherwise LGBTQ+-themed products.
  • Don’t release Pride campaigns without building an inclusive company first. Offer training on diversity and inclusion or create a staff LGBTQ+ network and ensure that any marketing efforts are backed up with concrete action.

Crucially, building an inclusive reputation begins within. It’s all well and good talking about your support of the LGBTQ+ community externally during Pride Month, but if your LGBTQ+ employees and customers do not receive your support all year round, it doesn’t appear authentic. Ultimately, shaping and managing a reputation involves taking accountability for actions and demonstrating strong company values, consistently.  

Want to learn more about shaping a brand’s reputation? Check out The Firefly Guide to Shaping Your Reputation.

At this point, most of us will have seen the latest Netflix-induced cultural phenomenon – The Tinder Swindler. If not, you’ll likely have heard about it through friends, news outlets and every existing social media platform you happen to be active on. But here’s something you’ve maybe not thought about: what can the Tinder Swindler teach us about comms, PR and branding?  

Boy meets girl, boy scams girl… 

If you’ve somehow managed to avoid knowledge of the new Netflix documentary entirely, let me summarise it for you…spoiler alert! A man meets women on the dating app Tinder, presenting himself as extremely wealthy with a lavish lifestyle. He embarks on relationships with these women  and then, a few months down the line, he convinces them that he is in imminent danger from his ‘enemies’. He then persuades them to send him money so he can escape – only, he keeps needing more. Using this method, he’s defrauded his victims of an estimated $10million.  

You might be thinking: sorry, how does this tie into PR and comms again? I’m getting there, I promise.  

Honesty is the best policy 

Let’s talk about image. The Tinder Swindler was an extremely convincing communicator when it came to his image. He portrayed himself as charming, genuine and immensely wealthy – and his victims believed him. But, of course, this was a complete lie. A lie that was ultimately exposed. And, while some might view having a Netflix documentary made about you as a form of success, he’s now known globally as a con artist and his face is not one that many women will be swiping right on anymore.  

The lesson we can all take from this is that honesty is integral when it comes to any branding or comms strategy. Putting a false, romanticised version of a company or brand out into the world may bring some initial success. But without honesty and integrity at its core, any comms plan will eventually crumble.  

PRs are your partners  

Now we know our clients aren’t out to con anyone – as most companies aren’t! That’s not what we’re implying. But it’s certainly not unheard of to get wrapped up in the excitement of appearing in the press. And sometimes, in an effort to achieve this, companies can lose sight of what it is they should be communicating, and how.  

It should be a shared responsibility between the company itself, and the PR agency they partner with, to manage this. Lots of PRs are yes men, and of course there’s an element of this required in any service industry. But it’s also vital that we remember our role as partners and advisors. Companies need PR agencies that will keep them honest, challenge them when PR, comms or branding strategy is overstepping the mark, and provide push back where necessary.  

Substance over splash, always  

For instance, companies can often fall into the trap of wanting to overhype all and any company news, whether it’s a genuinely interesting new acquisition or simply a change of office. The press quickly grow tired of exaggerated news of success and so, as PRs, it’s our job to call out when hyperbole might be in play and push back on forcing this news out to sceptical journalists.   

Another area companies can get carried away with is employer branding. With the current employment market the way it is, every company is naturally keen to appeal to candidates. But it’s vital to remember – before launching into any awards, speaker opportunities, or weighing in on any news – that the work actually needs to be done internally first. A company that is 90% male should do tangible work on improving inclusivity before commenting on International Women’s Day, for instance.  

PRs should be ready and willing to point things like this out, helping keep our clients honest and on the straight and narrow. This partnership will lay the foundation for a strong PR and comms strategy, with truth-telling at its core.  

There was a quote from Matt Damon earlier this month in GQ where he expressed his feeling on the return to Hollywood: “It has just been a lot, like from zero to hundred again. I was excited to kind of reengage with the world, but I forgot how fast it moves.”

It’s the same story across every industry; and comms certainly had a hectic summer.

This September, The London Underground saw the busiest Monday back since the start of the pandemic, as the rush hour roars back. Bars, restaurants, and cafes have bustled to life with eager customers; the wait for a table at your favourite spot is back. A frenzied summer of global dealmaking and transactions has set records, with almost $4 trillion of deals already signed on the dotted line. The job market is busy, with the second highest monthly increase in new employment coupled with a booming number of vacancies.

Headlines are dominated now by funding news, companies committed to growing their workforce and launches of new innovations. It’s exciting, it’s hectic, but it is worth taking a moment to reflect on what we’ve just been through.

When the pandemic blended our professional and personal lives, we learned valuable lessons in authenticity and vulnerability as the world changed around us. Whilst we ride the wave of economic prosperity and reopening, these resilient characteristics will be vastly beneficial.

Zooming out to see the bigger picture

As the crisis of the pandemic hit, conversations became more meaningful as we all stood on common ground. It facilitated more open and authentic discussion as we chatted home lives, mental health, and everything in between. Not only did we see inside people’s homes, including their bookshelves, but opportunities for more introspection and empathy across every industry were revealed.

Some changes were hugely impactful on our daily lives and some more subtle, but we developed a wider and more thoughtful perspective, reframing what we see in the ‘picture frame of life’. A crisis often helps us develop a wider point of view as we question the way we live and what is important to us. However, for many people, it was a challenge as industries ground to a halt or plans were cancelled completely. For those lucky enough to have job security and the freedom and space to dream big, zooming out to see the bigger picture can present brilliant opportunities for improving growth and communications within your organisation.

By breaking free of the prior rigidity of routine, we found ourselves to be more vulnerable. Everyone has experienced the past 18 months vastly similarly and vastly differently; we can resonate and sympathise with our neighbours and colleagues. Beyond seeing the glass as half full, we see new imagined and realistic ideals: moving to a new city, a new career change or a new passion.

The power of authentic and human communication

Whilst it may be tempting for businesses to focus on comms demonstrating growth, success, and innovation, it must be balanced with authentic stories highlighting the impact and human side to your brand. The power to bounce back is more paramount than ever, especially how we set forth with this ability.  This can be showcased with reputational assets- thought leaders, delighted clients, resilient workforces- the important part is to continue to build purpose-led authentic communications. Be wary of following what the rest of the crowd is doing  though, and make sure to march to the beat of your own drum. Audiences are sharp and they know when they are being duped with a manufactured story or a cliched idiom. To avoid these blunders, provide your audience with relatable, passion and enthusiastic messaging without overthinking.

Being vulnerable to stand out in the crowd

In a vast sea of communications, stick out withpersonable and honest stories. For example, the file sharing service WeTransfer had a viral, offbeat campaign entitled ‘Please Leave’, narrated by poet Roxane Gay, reminding audiences of their values of putting people first, and the importance of creativity.

You may feel like Matt Damon and have forgotten how fast pre-pandemic life zooms by, but don’t forget pandemic life either. We learnt a lot, and as hard as it was, in many ways it made us better and more human.

The Deliveroo IPO boycott could be far reaching, and have implications far beyond the tech industry as fund managers slate their ethical stances. As experts in reputation shaping for tech-driven business, Firefly and I are watching closely. A growing number of institutional investors* have boycotted the IPO, citing the Deliveroo employment practices as a ticking timebomb which makes the company uninvestible. Certainly, with the recent Uber news of greater legal rights being given to its riders and drivers, there is an element of reputational and legal risk if Deliveroo does not change the business model, and an element of financial risk if it does, as Deliveroo’s profit margin is already very slim. Interestingly, while Deliveroo may yet stumble on this issue of gig economy practices, its competitors such as Just Eat offers full employment contracts to all its UK-based riders. Deliveroo offers a great service which I have enjoyed many times, and it has a highly motivated and award-winning in-house PR team. Hopefully the team has CEO, Will Shu’s ear on resolving or counteracting the reputational damage and criticism. There is no doubt it’s special, exciting and encouraging to see a British business list on the London Stock Exchange. We wish Deliveroo well. We also wish it looks after its workers more fairly. We’ll see what gets served up when shares trade, we’ll share more views after that.

Privacy will be a big theme in 2018. If you’ve not yet come across the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), where have you been hiding? The regulation will come into play in May 2018 – and if privacy and data protection wasn’t already all people could talk about last year, then just you wait for the explosion this year!

GDPR brings a host of challenges for businesses – particularly for marketing folk. But I won’t go into that now, we’ve already covered this in a previous blog post which you can read here.

But one consequence of GDPR is that people will become more aware of the protection of data and their privacy – which has already started to result in people losing trust in some of the major technology providers.

The build-up of mistrust

We are not far off a major breakdown between consumer-business relationships at the rate we’re going. Last year Uber was hacked and hid it, YouTube allowed sexualised remarks to be left alongside content featuring children, Google was sued for gender discrimination and that’s only a handful of last year’s scandals in the tech sector.

Big players can just about ride out this type of negative attention due to their dominance of the market – although many responsible companies have responded and changed in response. But what would happen if this was an attack on one of the smaller challenger brands? It could be their ending.

There’s nowhere to hide – brands must prepare for total transparency

Internal culture is becoming part of a brand’s identity. For a long time now, sites like Glassdoor and social media have given outsiders an inside view of a company’s ‘employer brand’ and culture. But culture hasn’t been exposed in the way we’ve seen it in 2017 – people have actively ‘outed’ poor behaviour and we’ve seen boycotts of services (like brands pulling ads off YouTube) and regulators swoop in (European demanding fair taxes from Google, Facebook and Amazon).

For transparency to work, brands must work on what they deem is the right internal culture because it will live on outside the company. If the marketing team hasn’t spent considerable time with HR in the past, then it’s time to start now.

Marketing and HR must club together

All employees and all customers are advocates of some kind, whether good or bad. HR and marketing must work together, not just at a tactical level to engage these advocates, but at a strategic one, especially given the incredible harm bad advocates can have on a brand.

Alongside HR, marketing must monitor how the company operates and keep a firm hand on the tiller. More than ever before, the inner workings of a company are projected externally – either through social sites like Glassdoor, or more simply, the way that staff talk to customers, partners and each other. This makes it far more important that HR and marketing are on the same page to ensure alignment in the way they engage advocates. And today, every single member of staff is an advocate. This is especially important if there is a cultural change – and if there’s resistance – marketing must help to mitigate that, which often means working very closely with the senior management team.

In a competitive talent market, HR teams and business leaders will have been busy building their employer brand, but in 2018 it’ll be about building employer trust. There are a number of surveys and studies which show the impact of a bad employer brand – mostly focusing on the consequence of your talent acquisition with higher costs to recruit and candidates turning down roles at companies with a bad rep. But in today’s world the impact of a bad reputation is so much higher, as we saw with the Uber and YouTube boycotts.

Marketing has an inherent skill in building trust. With HR, marketing becomes fundamental in navigating the company during this new era of trust. And customers and employees will demand proof of this trust – regulations like the GDPR will make sure of that!

 

 

Until mid-September 2017, Facebook allowed ad buyers to target users who were interested in, or who had interacted with anti-Semitic content[1]. The categories were created by a self-selecting algorithm, which aggregated data based on user activity on pages and feeds, rather than individuals’ profiles, from each of its two billion active monthly users.

In March 2016, Microsoft launched an experimental Twitter chatbot to learn from other users, get smarter and eventually have conversations[2]. Just a few hours later, @TayandYou was spouting white supremacist, pro-genocidal content and was taken down in short order.

This raises two questions in my mind. Firstly, can machines be accountable for their actions? And second, what should you do as a communications professional if they do misbehave?

Why should we hold machines accountable?

Neural network-style systems are programmed and trained to reach outcomes, within certain parameters, such as not letting high-risk people buy insurance or creating a category for advertisers to target once a topic reaches a certain threshold of interest amongst users. These algorithms are usually very complex, as they have to process a significant amount of information about specific users, users as groups, external conditions and do a lot of calculations as a result. But once they’re trained within a reasonable degree of success, many organisations simply let them run.

The problem, as academics and journalists tell us, is that this learning can sometimes be a ‘black box’ that you can’t see inside.

It’s cheap labour; all you have to pay is the operating bill for the server.

Of course, not all algorithms are commercial – one of our clients, SafeToNet, is in the middle of creating algorithms that can detect harmful content online and take appropriate action to prevent children seeing it. The algorithms can also learn ‘backwards’ – for example, once it sees that an exchange between two young adults ends in one sending the other a sexually explicit message, it looks back at the cadence of communication to learn the pattern that lead to the explicit content and help prevent this in future, removing the harm before it occurs.

The problem is the lack of transparency – according to the Huffington Post and Oxford University, putting this in place can often make a system less efficient, because it has to be slowed down enough to be overseen[3]. But I’m in complete agreement with Wired Magazine when it said, ‘it would be irresponsible not to try to understand it’[4] – after all, some of these systems are hugely powerful, have no moral compass and reflect the best and worst parts of the human condition without any concept of which is which.

My opinion is really very simple: no machine, no application, no algorithm should go untested or unsupervised, particularly in the period immediately after release or upgrade. You wouldn’t give a few days training to a junior member of staff and expect them to perform well without a manager, and algorithms don’t have the common sense or moral compass that new employees have.

Handling a crisis in AI

But if things do go wrong, how do you handle an AI crisis? Well, in many ways it’s no different to handling other crisis situations – just don’t be afraid of the complexities of AI. The first stage of any crisis, robot-fuelled or not, is understanding the situation clearly. Talk to the experts in the company where problems originated and don’t take no for an answer. After that, we’d recommend traditional crisis communications steps, including:

After the initial surge of adrenalin fades, it’s vital to keep monitoring the situation, assessing the impact, taking action and keeping an eye on the response across stakeholder groups, and across traditional and social media channels.

Above all, when you’re dealing with a machine crisis, the most important thing is to think like a human.

 

[1] https://www.propublica.org/article/facebook-enabled-advertisers-to-reach-jew-haters

[2] http://uk.businessinsider.com/ai-expert-explains-why-microsofts-tay-chatbot-is-so-racist-2016-3

[3] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/how-ai-can-remain-fair-and-accountable_us_5934ec81e4b062a6ac0ad154

[4] https://www.wired.com/2016/10/understanding-artificial-intelligence-decisions/

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