Back in 1966, the first chatbot, Eliza, was created by Joseph Weizenbaum at MIT. Eliza operated very simply and ran scripts imitating a therapist. Users would input words to Eliza’s system and Eliza would use those words to choose a prescripted response.
While Eliza certainly wasn’t up to handling the complex tasks of today’s chatbots, the idea that people could interact meaningfully with chatbot technology kicked off nearly 60 years ago and remains a viable communication process today. In fact, on Facebook alone, there are reportedly 300,000 chatbots currently active and more than eight billion messages are exchanged via chatbots every month.
Chatbots are really important. I get it, you get, the business world gets it. So why write this article?
It’s simple. Chatbots are being deployed by the thousand in business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) companies as customer service agents, sales support agents and booking agents. In fact, according to “The 2018 State of Chatbots Report,” 27% of U.S. adults are ready to buy basic goods from a chatbot.
I’ve found that today’s deployment of chatbots often ignores one important opportunity, however: using them as a tool in crisis communication. I believe chatbots can provide some of the most human and organizational good when used for this purpose.
People may seek chatbots during a crisis — let them know how to find it.
Interestingly, the most-predicted use case by survey respondents in “The 2018 State of Chatbots Report” was “to get quick answers in emergencies.” Thirty-seven percent of respondents cited that as their primary predicted use of chatbots in the future.
During a crisis, it’s tough to predict exactly where all members of affected audiences will look for information. To deploy chatbots with the highest level accessibility and use, I recommend creating multiplatform chatbots that can plug into websites, social media pages and dedicated FAQ pages — accessible on both desktop and mobile. Then, in order to funnel visiting traffic through the chatbot, set the chatbot to pop up on any page it lives on and prompt visitors to ask it questions. This tends to establish the chatbot as a quick and accurate resource and drives a significant number of questions
Chatbots can help your organization control message volume.
During times of crisis, organizations can be inundated with calls, emails, social media messages, etc. The more people affected by the crises, the more communications an organization needs to be prepared for. However, I find that most organizations are not equipped with the resources necessary to handle the increased volume of messages.
By integrating chatbots into your crisis response strategy, you can handle nearly unlimited amounts of traffic and conversations. A multiplatform bot can relieve immense amounts of pressure on your internal team, which can free them up to actually manage the crisis.
It’s important to remember, though, that chatbots cannot answer all questions sent your way. Typically, I advise organizations to build in escalation prompts where a user can request access to a communications representative. Then, build the functionality into the chatbot to email specific representatives when those access requests come through.
Leverage your chatbot to ensure message accuracy.
In any crisis, accurate information is one of the highest priorities. Through the course of most crises, facts change, updates happen and key publics need different messaging. If one set of messaging is released in the morning, but things change that afternoon, how does an organization ensure people get the update? While churning through message and call volume, how does an organization make sure all messengers give accurate messages 100% of the time?
One of the biggest mistakes organizations make in deploying chatbot technology is failing to assign someone to keep the message bank up-to-date. Chatbots can be programmed with a bank of accurate information that can be updated at all hours of the day.
Recently, I worked with an organization dealing with a crisis that had significant public attention. The company’s chief information officer had media briefings twice per day, and I worked with the team to update their chatbot’s message bank at each briefing. By making updates regularly, chatbots can present information properly 100% of the time, with 100% accuracy.
Send push notifications when immediate updates are necessary.
In some crises, it is vital for affected publics to receive updates instantly — not just at predetermined briefings or through social media. Consider the wildfires in Utah last year. With multiple cities affected by multiple fires, local sheriffs needed to communicate with people quickly about evacuations, donations and fire progress. I was asked to come in and help, and before the day was out, we had a chatbot ready to handle important questions. However, in addition to providing up-to-the-minute accurate information to thousands of people per hour, the chatbot could also push-notify important updates to anyone who had interacted with it.
Just as with any communications tool, it’s important not to spam people with regular updates. Instead, save push notifications for just the most pressing updates and allow your other communications channels and the chatbot’s information bank to serve less-pressing updates when requested by individual users.
What’s the takeaway? Stop looking at chatbots as a nice addition to your crisis plans and start looking at them as a vital part of your crisis communications strategy. They can enhance your human team’s efforts, and in a time of crisis, you will want to leverage every advantage you can get.