Tools That Check for Bias in Written Content Can Improve Crisis Messaging

We are 21 years out from the perceived depiction of the future in “2001: A Space Odyssey.” Yet HAL, the notorious host of a doomed spaceship in Stanley Kubrick’s film adaptation of Arthur C. Clarke’s 1968 novel, still remains in viewers’ memories.

A computer programmed with artificial intelligence (AI), HAL was the ship’s brain. It served the crew’s every need. Adopting a temperate male voice, HAL seemed almost as human as any astronaut aboard the spaceship, Discovery One.

Unfortunately, HAL gets too involved in things. Eventually HAL goes haywire, and—spoiler alert—kills the majority of those aboard.

Fast forward to 2022 and AI has made great strides in various industries. AI even writes rudimentary media stories.

It’s also gone mainstream. Examples include Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri.

Yet, as in the Kubrick film, humans aren’t completely certain about AI. A recent survey from Pew Research Center finds AI’s potential is exciting for 45 percent of Americans, though they have reservations, depending on the way it is used.

For example, only 26 percent favor driverless cars. However, 46 percent think police using AI facial recognition is a good idea.

AI for Communicators

For communicators, AI can help gather data, oversee workflow and scheduling, provide assistance in monitoring media and even create virtual influencers.

AI also has a role in message creation.

Several vendors offer tools that help PR pros ensure their writing is inclusive. For example, these tools can alert PR pros of perceived bias in job descriptions, emails and social media posts.

Inclusive augmented writing software tools like Textio, Writesonic and Fairwords analyze millions of documents, essentially teaching themselves to spot biased phrases.

In addition, some tools, such as Textio, can analyze a user’s writing and when they find an issue and replace it with more inclusive language, says Marc Brailov, Textio’s director of communication.

“[The tool] ensures that every word…reflects your DEI values and [when used in HR work] attracts people who value DEI,” he claims.

As PR pros know, words matter. Showcasing awareness of inclusion through language can bolster a company’s reputation with potential candidates as well as current employees.

Of course, words are just a portion of building an inclusive culture. Companies that want to endorse a diverse culture must not only use inclusive language, they need to act on their values in recruiting and retention, for example.

A Conversation Starter

Aside from tactical use cases, inclusive writing tools can help defuse potential PR crises and promote positive conversation about company culture.

For Rae Moss, director communications and outreach, Idaho National Laboratory, Textio has helped her team spot unintentional bias in written material.

Moss embraced the idea of looking for bias in PR content after a communication specialist mentioned that the Laboratory’s HR team used Textio for reviewing bias in its job postings.

Moss says it was “interesting to notice the unintended bias” the tool revealed.

“During a monthly team meeting, we had a conversation about it, and ran a few of our stories through it as a team,” Moss says.

“We then discussed the results that came up–the tool highlighted words or phrases that could be perceived as biased. It was an interesting conversation that made us realize some things we were doing that could have been unintentionally impacting our audiences.”

Avoid Dependence on Tools

Moss says that while her team doesn’t run all its content through the tool, it does so periodically. Content used includes internal and external messaging.

She says it’s important to look at tools as a conversation starter rather than a policing method.

“Rather than depending on the tool to always find things for us, we do periodic checks and use that as a starting point for conversations on ways to prevent bias in our writing,” Moss says.

Had the astronauts heeded Moss’s concern about over-dependence on tools, "2001: A Space Odyssey" might have been a happier story.

Home-Grown Tools

That said, while there are many physical plug-in tools and AI-powered editor tools available, some PR pros are creating policies, checklists, templates and frameworks that assess inclusivity in messaging.

Eleanor Arlook, director, APCO Impact, the sustainability and social impact group at APCO Worldwide, says inclusive communication is a “muscle that needs constant exercising and training.”

“Clear policies like how you define diverse imagery or minimum levels of diversity for spokespersons or influencers driving campaigns can be a powerful tool for accountability,” Arlook says.

Since many organizations employ large, dispersed teams, Arlook encourages using a series of checklists that can help monitor inclusivity in writing.

“Checklists that force the writer or creator to ask themselves questions like “Who is included and who isn’t?”, “Am I perpetuating stereotypes or challenging societal norms?”, or “Have I sought input from those with perspectives who are different than mine?” can create opportunities to pause and think.”

Human Tools

In addition, Arlook says communicators should consider creating a diverse committee of reviewers and use it as a writing tool.

“This is not your DEI Council or employee resource groups; this is a group that is curated specifically to serve as a sounding board for campaigns or communication and is clearly onboarded and encouraged to meaningfully contribute perspectives,” she says.

APCO has found this useful, particularly during impending crises or when escalating issues surface.

“A quick and thoughtful response needs to take multiple perspectives into account,” she says.

Nicole Schuman is senior editor, PRNEWS.