How the rise in chatbots impacts digital PR

Chatbots, which brands and publishers are using more frequently to engage with digital audiences, could reach up to two billion users in the next couple of years, according to DigidayGorkana asked agencies Diffusion, Firstlight PR, Good Relations and Threepipe what implications this trend has for PR. 

The boom in messenger apps, such as Whatsapp, Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and Skype, has led many brands to invest in new methods to interact with the billions of users on these apps daily.

Chatbots, machines that mimic human conversations and engage with the users within these apps, are an increasingly popular form of interaction and it’s not just the social media giants who are using them. Publishers, including, The Washington Post, which is reportedly building a news bot and Quartz, as well as e-commerce sites such as Sephora, are also fuelling this trend.

So, PR professionals, including those spoken to by Gorkana, are increasingly expected to help clients evaluate the benefits of providing a chatbot service as they are with other channels, such as Twitter. But how big a part of the digital PR conversation is the chatbot trend?

PR can guide tone of voice and topics of response

Ivana Farthing, head of mobile & consumer technology at Diffusion, describes how the agency is currently working with clients and helping them evaluate the pros and cons of chatbots: “At the moment, we’re advising our clients on how they may use chatbots as part of their customer service function, looking at the importance of tone of voice and ensuring that they are aware of any potential dangers from a reputational perspective.”

“In today’s world, we are increasingly expecting things on-demand, and customers expect responses to questions quicker than ever before. Fifty-three per cent of customers who ask a brand a question on Twitter expect a response within one hour. This percentage rises to seventy-two per cent if it is complaint.”

She added: “It’s getting increasingly difficult for brands to keep up with these expectations which is where chatbots may be able to help relieve the strain and provide better customer service by responding in real-time.”

According to Farthing, PR teams can help to determine how ‘chatty’ the bots should be, choosing which queries bots should – and should not – respond to and picking which queries require a human response.

Chatbots can impact on reputation

Jim Hawker, CEO at Threepipe, said the way chatbots are handled will vary between clients.

“PR people do often handle customer service on other platforms but, I don’t think this is by design, and this varies massively from client to client, depending on the internal set-up. Using PR agencies to handle customer service enquiries must be one of the most cost inefficient ways of using PR agency time and increasingly many different job functions will have access to the same channels for different purposes.”

However, the role of PR is crucial if – like other customer service issues – something goes wrong with a chatbot.

Anna Price, associate director at Firstlight PR said: “In the age of AI and automated customer management, PR teams need to be prepared to manage any impact on reputation when the robot gets it wrong. Remedying customer service issues that arise from failures or frustrations with chatbots could end up falling to the communications team: especially if played out over social media.

“Businesses looking to use chatbots to improve customer experience or reduce engagement costs should think carefully about the communication context. For straightforward customer interactions, there might be room for automated channels in the mix. However, in circumstances where there isn’t always an easy answer, and in situations where customer loyalty or brand reputation are at stake, direct human engagement will remain critical,” she added.

What Microsoft’s ‘Tay’ teaches us

Robert Anderson, Good Relations’ executive director of content marketing and digital strategy, told Gorkana that to gain exposure brands should not retreat from taking risks. He argues that cases such as Microsoft’s Twitter-based chatbot ‘Tay’, which published Tweets the software giant issued an apology for, show that PR can help remedy difficult situations.

Anderson said: “Microsoft’s bot ‘Tay’, by way of one example, was hijacked – but, despite the embarrassment and offence it caused – actually highlighted the innovation behind the scenes at the company. The tech didn’t work out this time but it offered a glimpse of the future and showed a resurgence of innovation at Microsoft. It’s been part of helping reboot the reputation of the Seattle giant as the innovator it always was, rather than the corporate giant it has become seen as.”

He added: “PR teams play a critical role here. We work with CEOs, we deal in reputation, and we’re not afraid of entering conversations that we influence rather than control. That should make us the first choice for helping companies and brands deliver against their vision, and to experiment.”

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