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I, (bad) Robot

15Jun Posted by Ben Rothschild

With the recent announcement from Google that the company will notify people when they are speaking to an artificial intelligence (AI) voice assistant when conducting phone calls, either to individuals or businesses, it is clear we are entering a world where intelligent, artificial voice assistants and chatbots will be the frontline of businesses’ communications with customers. Whilst this change will bring vast efficiencies for businesses, the drive to cut costs could incur massive reputational risks.

There have been many recent attempts to create intelligent voice assistants which can accurately converse with humans – some, such as Amazon’s Alexa and the Google AI assistant, have resulted in commercially viable products, whilst others, such as Microsoft’s Tay, led to a racist fiasco as the AI learned from interactions with trolls over Twitter. Given the inherent danger of using automated assistants run by algorithms that very few individuals understand, how can businesses manage these risks, and react when the AI communications goes wrong?

Human Control and Knowledge

Human oversight is a must for automated communications, no matter how advanced. The potential for AI to learn offensive language, be hacked by hostile actors, or even simply to develop an issue is high. All of these could create a reputational vulnerability unless managed properly. Human oversight can provide the ability for businesses to respond quickly when something goes wrong, minimising the reputational damage suffered. By communicating with authenticity, emotional intelligence, and appropriate speed, customers and the wider public can be appeased, even if the original issue was particularly egregious.

Alternatively, companies could make it clearer when an individual is speaking to a chatbot or voice assistant, as was suggested by Google. This could go some way to reducing the outrage and reputational damage suffered. Ideally, consumers would be more understanding if it was made clear that the conversation was automated, and would be aware that automated systems occasionally make mistakes. This system would likely work best on Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media, where chatbots can operate more effectively. For consumers contacting businesses over the phone, the realisation that they are talking to a ‘robot’ could be jarring, dissuading customers from reporting issues.

Whatever businesses choose to do when implementing AI systems, it is clear that ensuring the balance between AI and human engagement will be a delicate one in achieving excellent customer service. It is also vital that human support is always there for when things do go wrong.

The role of the communications industry

Professional communicators, in particular crisis management experts will have a particularly valuable role, as intelligent voice assistants become widely adopted. Before a crisis occurs, it is vital that businesses connect with these experts to create specific protocols and action plans that can be implemented should an issue with the voice assistants arise. These plans should include the processes that need to be followed during a crisis, as well the specific tactical implementation for these processes. Holding statements, guidance on how to reply to incidents, as well as advice on how to connect with the media should be part and parcel of any crisis plan.

The communications industry will also have a major role to play, helping ensure that businesses embed AI in an appropriate manner. Communications professionals with an expertise in internal communications will have a vital function in managing lines of communication to affected employees and other internal stakeholders.  By helping employees trust AI, even as it disrupts traditional employment structures, the communications industry can help humans and AI work harmoniously together – a win for the innovating business and a win for employees able to capitalise on the advancements AI will bring.

From a more external facing focus, communications professionals can also train executives and other high-profile individuals on how to appropriately articulate messaging to the media consistently. This consistency will reduce confusion and the lifetime of a media crisis, protecting long-term reputation and brand image.

The rise of intelligent voice assistants and automated communications does not need to spell disaster for the communications industry. By leveraging emotional intelligence and authenticity, communicators can help businesses manage the issues that automation may bring, allowing them to utilise the advantages to full effect.

Ben Rothschild
Ben Rothschild

Ben is a project lead on some of Sermelo’s large international clients. Since joining Sermelo in 2016, he has supported clients to help them achieve their communications objectives with a particular focus on copywriting, media relations, internal communications, social media support and account management. He has worked across a broad range of both business and consumer facing sectors including insurance, aerospace, mining, automotive, property, electrical goods and travel.

A key component of Ben’s role is developing and implementing multi-channel media engagement campaigns for clients, including FM Global, Andermatt Swiss Alps, De Beers, Norsk Hydro and Oerlikon. These campaigns have resulted in significant international, UK national and trade media coverage.

Ben has a degree in History and Ancient History from the University of Exeter. Outside of work, he is interested in football, cricket, tennis, and is also a keen reader.

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