AI and Personal Data: The Struggle Is Real

Last week, WE published the position paper “Artificial Intelligence and the New Imperative for Communicators.”

During our research, I read a lot of books and articles about AI and talked to experts in the field to better understand the key issues, capabilities and questions we should all be asking about AI and communications. But what began as an intellectual and professional endeavor quickly turned personal as I wrangled with the reality that the benefits of AI are dependent on gobs and gobs of personal data.


Data privacy versus AI convenience: Do we have to choose?

WE’s Chief Client Officer and President of North America, Dawn Beauparlant, once said she wants AI to review her family’s calendars, understand their travel preferences, and plan a vacation they all will love. That sounds amazing. As a consumer, I want AI to work for me and make my life easier. I want my whole house to be smart, so I can turn on my oven, start the bath water for my daughter, and schedule a vet appointment for my cat — all with a voice command.

But here’s the rub: If AI is going to work for me, it needs to know as much about me as possible. It needs to breathe the machine equivalent of oxygen: my data.

Big tech and cloud computing have spurred massive AI innovations, but the models are only as good as the data they are fed. On one hand, I want companies to use my data to build AI technologies that improve the human experience writ large — and enhance my own life in myriad small but wonderful ways. On the other, I’m hesitant to give up my data because I don’t know how it’s being used, who can buy it or how safe it is. On top of that, it’s not always clear when consumers are giving consent to brands to collect that data.

For example, Walgreens is now using cameras that guess a shopper’s age and track their irises in order to see where people are looking. In-store information about the cameras is limited, and although the tracking function is not currently in use, the lack of transparency, combined with the camera’s potential uses, could significantly impact consumer trust.


The ethical imperative for communicators

As an individual, I struggle to balance my desire for convenience and my hesitancy to share the data that begets that convenience. But, as a professional communicator, I recognize that when it comes to AI, I’m uniquely positioned to help ensure its ethical use. Transparency is key, as is understanding how the tech is built to guard against algorithmic bias, which can perpetuate harmful stereotypes.

The hyper-personalization, targeting and predictive capabilities that AI tools will make possible will be a boon to communicators as we all seek to deepen connections to audiences. Our job is to make sure we use AI-enabled tech with integrity, and to guide our clients as they move toward their own adoption or creation of new tools.

For most PR pros, this will be new territory. Developing guiding principles that align with your company’s values is a good place to start. Here are a few other things you can do to help your clients build trust with their audiences.

Be transparent

Make sure that audiences know the what, when, why and how of any data you or your clients are collecting. If a bot is part of the equation, ensure that people know when they are interacting with one and that a human is available when needed.

Ask questions

Communicators don’t need to be data scientists, but it behooves us to gain fluency in data analysis, the processes that go into building an AI model, and the biases that could exist in the algorithms. Lean into curiosity and don’t be afraid to challenge how things are built and operated.

Learn about the tools

Familiarize yourself with today’s AI tools and their capabilities. Marketing has been faster to adopt AI tools than communications departments, and examining how content marketers use AI could spark ideas for your own work or that of your clients.

See the big picture

AI will be immensely helpful, but using it just because it’s trending isn’t the answer. Understanding data science and keeping up with new developments in AI technologies will help you help brands balance the need for AI-powered solutions with the desire to treat consumers ethically.


Check out the position paper for more ideas and insights. I’d love to hear from anybody who has an interest or is working in this area. How are you thinking about the opportunities and challenges? What concrete first steps have you taken?

April 30, 2019

Joanne Matsusaka
Account Director