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Don’t blame algorithms for public relations disasters

 At least one of recent corporate publicity disasters has been blamed on algorithms. Even very little informed people by now know that this set of calculations are now ruling growing aspects of our lives. Companies that make the world go round —anything from healthcare companies to investment firms— employ this computerized processes for vital decisions.

So did United, catastrophically. It was apparently an algorithm that chose the passengers to bump on the flight from Chicago to Louisville, Kentucky. After the computer issued its suggestion, the airline followed suit. As one of the passengers refused to disembark, the airline followed protocol. Law enforcement pulled the hapless passenger forcibly, bloodying him while dragging him down the plane’s aisle.

While it’s true that algorithms are playing a greater role in many fields, it’s still their human masters who make the calls. In United’s case, algorithms didn’t really matter. The airline could have chosen the passengers to bump tossing a coin. In any case, the heartless computer didn’t instruct security staff to behave like thugs and break the man’s nose.

The bigger story is when algorithms begin taking decisions that humans will not be able to override. It may cause anything from a nuisance —like a missed flight— to life-or-death matters in the field of healthcare. What if computers were to decide complicated medical cases, like unconscious patients on life-support? Would an algorithm estimate that the odds of survival versus healthcare costs would not be worth continued hospitalization, and pull the plug? It’s an extreme, unlikely case. But we should not let that happen.

For everything else, there are public relations specialists. Preferably, companies should let their PR departments or agents develop a preventive strategy. That should spare them an algorithm-induced mess or two. But if it does happen, don’t blame the computer. Call your PR people.


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