WASHINGTON, DC — The PR industry is getting better at integrating new technologies, but needs to be far more focused on the details and ethical issues involved, heard delegates at PRovokeGlobal today.

In a session that looked at the state of comms tech, PRophet founder and CEO Aaron Kwittken pointed out that the industry was doing well when it comes to adopting technology in terms of influencer and creator management, but still needed to become far more data-driven.

"Where we’re struggling is…I would like us to move from workflow to some of these situations that help us become more perfomative," said Kwittken. "We need more data to back up that instinct. I’d like to see us move away from ‘how did I do’ to ‘how do I do better’."

Becoming more data-driven, though, opens up plenty of challenges that the industry isn't necessarily ready far. Starting with, according to Edelman Washington DC president Dan Webber, knowledge levels, particularly when it comes to new graduates.

"We have to obsess about the details," said Webber. "One of our challenges, particularly with newer folks coming into the industry, they don’t necessarily understand the tech. We don’t necessarily have the budget to pay for those tools and training, and we have to obsess about that."

Meanwhile, the rise of machine learning brings significant concerns too, not least when it comes to data privacy. "Whether we know it or not, we are creating content that will be consumed by Google who will then show it to others," said The Agile World podcast host Greg Kihlstorm. "We need to understand that the machines are building on what’s prior and what’s available and what’s popular, not necessarily what’s important and what's diverse."

"The thing that worries me is when you are going on to a platform that tries to do everything for you, we’re hitting agree on the user terms," added Kwittken. "I worry about data leakage and how they are data mining. The problem is there’s no transparency around that. At least tell me you’re going to do that so I can opt into it. You have to ask certain questions about information security and penetration testing."

According to Virginia Tech associate professor Dr Nneka Logan, people often feel like they have no choice when it comes to handing over their data. That calls not only for transparency from providers, but also for PR professionals to step up.

"Transparency is huge but we also need to have participation," said Dr Logan. "More of that ability to opt in. But then, also, accountability. As PR professionals we are in a very strong position to lead our organizations to take meaningful steps in these directions."

In that regard, added Webber, one of the critical questions surrounds the response when machines get things wrong. "It has to go all the way up to the CEO," he said. "When the machine makes the wrong decision, are we ready to communicate about what that means or doesn’t mean?"

That requires PR professionals to ask their organizations hard questions about the data, explained Dr Logan.

"The first and most important thing that we have now, that we didn’t have 50 years ago, is the awareness…that data is collected in ways that are not equitable," she said. "Can we undo all that? No. But recognize that it occurs. As PR people, we can ask our organizations about the data - are there any unintended consequences? In my perspective, public relations functions as the conscience of the organization — they can take a proactive stance and try to do so equitably."

It also, said Kwittken, requires better understanding of tech stacks, along with more leadership from PR industry associations.