With New Chair, PRSA Continues Focus on Ethics, DEI

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Newly elected as PRSA national chair for 2023, Michelle Egan is CCO of Anchorage, Alaska-based Alyeska Pipeline Service Company. Reporting to the president, she oversees internal and external communications for the company, which is charged with operating the TransAlaska Pipeline System. Egan has volunteered with PRSA for 20 years and joined the Board of Directors in 2018, serving two terms as treasurer. PRNEWS asked about the association membership’s biggest challenges in the year ahead. In addition, we discussed member concerns around chatGPT, ethics, and the steps PRSA has taken to diversify its membership and the industry. Her edited responses are below.

PRNEWS: What do PRSA’s members see as the biggest challenges at the moment?

Michelle Egan, national chair, PRSA

Michelle Egan: One big challenge is the way the economy's going. We've already heard about layoffs, and we know that there's concern about what the future holds in the next year…but it's also an opportunity for people to be adding value in the organizations that they're in.

As companies make tough decisions, being part of the conversation about what that looks like, how it's going to impact the business, how we're going to engage with employees, that all is top of mind for our members…

We've really come through a few years where PR and communications has been in a unique position to advise the business. It's our opportunity to really continue that momentum, and to make sure that we stay in the conversation…

And of course, mis- and disinformation is never something we're comfortable with. And now that we have full-throated conversations about AI and chatGPT, we really see that that could come at us faster than it has already. PRSA has lots of resources for members about media literacy, and helping their clients or their organizations really understand how to navigate that…

PRNEWS: As you talk to members, does ChatGPT dominate what members are concerned about?

Egan: I think people right now are just kind of getting used to the idea, and they’re playing around with it. [They need to] consider what the uses of it might be that allow us to step into a more higher value work. If you're using it for idea generation, and that allows you to take it even further, or you’re giving chatGPT or some other tool a task that you don't necessarily need your best critical thinking for, that can allow you to add higher value in the organization. So we're encouraging that way of looking at it as opposed to coming at it from a place of fear.

I think the ethics of it will be the center of our conversation, at least in these early days. So, how do you navigate it, in terms of attribution, in terms of bias? I think that's probably going to be the focus of the conversation initially…

PRNEWS: What is your top goal at PRSA for the next year?

Egan: We have a brand-new strategic plan. And it is focused on one north star, which is that we're a community of ethical communications professionals building for tomorrow, today. We're really focused on the future of our industry and the future of our profession…

For me, digging in and speaking up on ethical issues is a priority. It's what really has grounded me in the profession, as well as in PRSA itself, the code of ethics that we have. I think you're going to see PRSA convening more conversations, not just among our own members, but with other organizations and other representatives of the industry, because these issues that we just talked about, these are tough, weighty issues, and there's no clear path…We want to be in that conversation, and hear and convene the debate and discussion about ethical issues, such as, how do I work with AI? What do I do about myths and disinformation? And where's the line on chatGPT?

PRNEWS: What sorts of organizations would you be talking to?

Egan: There are a lot of thought leaders in communications that aren't necessarily members [of PRSA]. Large organizations that represent CCOs of major companies would be one [group]. Organizations that represent large agencies would be another...journalists, organizations that represent journalists. We all have common interests.

PRNEWS: Let's talk a little bit about diversity. What one or two things is PRSA doing on diversity?

Egan: It's a big space, because we have done quite a bit of work in this area in the last few years. We have a diversity, equity and inclusion committee that's been really active. We had a full strategic plan on DEI, which is now folded into our broader strategic plan.

After the murder of George Floyd, we had our members having some conversations about really sensitive, difficult issues. We've got some members who were deeply affected by that, personally, who were willing to step out and say, ‘Let's talk about this, and how you and your organization can be a leader around DEI’ and what kinds of language we should use.

We will continue with those conversations. Diverse Voices is a program within our DEI efforts that has webinars about diversity. The PRSA Foundation is very focused on DEI, particularly at the student and incoming professional level.

And within our own organization, the efforts to diversify the leadership inside PRSA and the membership are extensive. So many chapters have a DEI board member that is focused on diversifying not just the way that they bring people into the organization, but also the topics that are covered. And our nominating committee has worked really hard over the last several years to diversify the board leadership.