FOCUS: HI-TECH PR - Zapping the new year bug problem/Consultancies are warning clients of the dangers of not being Year 2000 compliant, even while remaining inadequately prepared themselves. Peter Robinson reports

What happens to computers and other chip-based devices at the last stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999 depends largely on who you choose to believe. Computers will either take us smoothly into the new Millennium or there will be a succession of failures that could question our dependence on them. Either way it is an issue that cannot be ignored, even though the industry has apparently left it astonishingly late to tackle it.

What happens to computers and other chip-based devices at the last

stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve 1999 depends largely on who you

choose to believe. Computers will either take us smoothly into the new

Millennium or there will be a succession of failures that could question

our dependence on them. Either way it is an issue that cannot be

ignored, even though the industry has apparently left it astonishingly

late to tackle it.



Early computer programmers used the final two digits of the year to

denote the date in order to save on memory. This means that next year

when 99 changes to 00, chip-based devices may interpret this as 1900

rather than 2000.



Since the ramifications of malfunctioning chip-based systems is so

serious, the issue has become a very public one. The implications for

corporate reputation are as important for IT companies as for the users

of their products.



Unfortunately, solving the problem is an area which has failed to find a

consensus even within the IT industry itself. For example, the head of

the previous government’s Taskforce 2000, which is now operating on a

private basis, has publicly criticised the new Government-backed

organisation Action 2000 for doing ’too little too late’.



The Quentin Bell Organisation is handling media relations and marketing

strategy for Action 2000, stressing that this is a business rather than

an IT issue. It has changed the direction of the campaign by introducing

the ’Millennium bug’ image. QBO has also designed fact sheets and helped

develop a web site and hotline, which to date has sent out 300,000 fact

sheets and advice packs. QBO campaign director, Simon Hill explains:

’The Millennium bug is a more populist term and strikes a balance

between scaremongering and complacency. We are targeting small and

medium-sized businesses in the private sector, holding briefings and

advising the Government on the vulnerability of public services, showing

them best practices in the private sector.’



But the ’bug’ concept has its critics. Kristen Syltevik, managing

director of Miller Shandwick Technologies thinks it smacks too much of

scaremongering.



On the plus side she thinks the widespread publicity has had the

advantage of elevating IT to board level. However she points out: ’Y2K

(Year 2000) fatigue is now setting in, maybe some people resent the hype

and we need to be aware of that problem.’



Getting the balance right in order to encourage companies to act is

crucial.



Nick Hayes, managing director of Noiseworks, points out that the IT

industry is acutely aware that ignoring public concern is no longer an

option: ’The industry learnt not to downplay potential user concern when

a few years ago, Intel burnt its fingers initially trying to play down

an error within a newly-issued Pentium chip. The result was a PR

nightmare - negative headlines, user outrage and a fall in the share

price.’



However, he notes that vendors are equally cautious about the legal

ramifications of claiming that they are 2000 compliant: ’I suspect there

will be plenty of legal cases in a couple of years where a user’s

organisation is disrupted and several vendors will have to argue among

themselves as to whose bit of code was actually the culprit.’



But with everything left so late and media interest hyped up, companies

have found it difficult to sit back and work out a rational

communications response.



Tari Hibbitt, managing director of Edelman PR Worldwide in London,

points out: ’Suddenly there is hype and panic everywhere with people

writing about the impossibility of compliance. Clients must calm down

and think about which aspect of 2000 is most important to them. The main

task is to be focused and look at particular aspects, such as the dearth

of IT staff and how 2000 compliance ties in with other business issues,

such as the introduction of EMU, then there is more chance of being

listened to.’



Case studies of clients’ best practice in dealing with the problem is

one way of presenting the issue. For example, Harvard Public Relations

has demonstrated how users have overcome particular 2000 issues by

implementing the systems of its client SAP (UK) and has held briefings

with particular industry sectors, such as retailing, to show how various

companies have tackled the issues.



If companies are not perceived to be addressing the issue, the danger of

losing customers is very real. For instance, several major companies

received bad publicity when a survey of annual reports by Company

Reporting highlighted that no reference was made to their current

efforts on Year 2000 compliance.



Tariq Khwaja, associate director of Text 100’s business innovation

group, says: ’This can make customers worry and defect to suppliers

which provide clearer information, or make them stop buying new computer

equipment altogether out of uncertainty.’



But from the customer’s point of view, it is certainly confusing with

advice coming from all directions, with differing standards. And in some

cases, consultancies have a lot to gain by putting the frighteners on

customers. Khwaja says: ’There is confusion and hype in the market and

the onus is on companies and their campaigns to deal with this. There

needs to be sanity, there are too many consultancies with an axe to

grind and which want to make a fast buck out of it. The best advice for

IT vendors is to come clean and clear up as much confusion as possible

around their products, even if the message is not 100 per cent

positive.’



Not surprisingly, one of the highest profile campaigns is for

Microsoft.



Last year, the company acknowledged that it was not communicating a

clear message and developed a guide covering all its products

highlighting any areas where compliance was not 100 per cent. This was

posted on its web site, sent to customers and a hotline was established.

Microsoft and the Computer Software and Services Association also

commissioned NOP to carry out research on how prepared UK businesses

were. Seventy per cent were found to have no firm plan of action, with

small businesses proving the main problem area.



The research received huge publicity throughout the mainstream

press.



But while the UK now appears to be at the forefront in tackling the

problem, interconnection with international partners could make systems

vulnerable.



Even a large organisation such as BT, which has done everything

possible, cannot account for the thousands of suppliers and companies it

interacts with around the world. This could have global consequences for

multinational companies and there are fears that there could even be a

Year 2000-induced global recession.



Andrew Rodaway, partner of Oast Communications says: ’It only needs one

system to go down - the crux of the problem is that no one knows the

overall impact of interfacing with systems that are not compliant and

liability is an unknown in this area.’



While many companies are now on the road to some semblance of compliance

it will take longer to repair public confidence in an industry which has

allowed such a basic problem to go relatively untreated for so long.

Tariq Khwaja quotes a cautionary story about the first article to appear

about the Year 2000 transition. It was written by an IT manager in the

US who had suggested to his superiors that the Year 2000 could pose a

major problem for the company. His reward was to be ignored and made

redundant.



COUNTDOWN: WHY PR MUST PUT ITS OWN HOUSE IN ORDER



’Physician heal thyself’ is an adage that many agencies should take on

board following recent MORI research for Firefly Communications

indicating that a third of PR consultancies are not yet Year 2000

compliant.



Even among the 63 per cent of agencies claiming to be compliant, few

were aware of the full range of devices that could be affected. For

instance, two out of three did not realise that the bug could affect

telephones and few realised that equipment, such as franking machines,

photocopiers, burglar alarms, air conditioning and heating controls,

could also be involved.



’It’s clear that the majority of PR agencies see it as someone else’s

problem, such as their suppliers or clients,’ says Firefly director,

David Hargraves. ’It is essential that the PR industry shows its own

compliance and looks up and down the supply chain putting pressure on

suppliers.’ Of those that stated they were not compliant in the survey,

60 per cent had no checking plan in place and none of those which did

have a plan had considered the full range of failure possibilities. Most

believed that it was a far more serious problem for other companies and

nearly half thought it was irrelevant for an organisation of their

size.



While many standard packages, such as Microsoft’s Word, should survive

Y2K, Nick Hayes managing director of Noiseworks warns: ’Problems could

occur with bespoke PR packages, like results monitoring and contact

management programmes.’ Price is a major consideration, with nearly a

third of those surveyed claiming that the cost of dealing with the

problem outweighed the potential threat. Perhaps some agencies believe

they will emerge unscathed or, if problems do occur, carry out some

behind-the-scenes tweaking.



But Andrew Rodaway, partner at Oast Communications says: ’Clients are

already asking for statements of compliance, particularly at the

tendering stage. As we get nearer the date, resources to fix the problem

will become even more scarce and we can expect more issues to crop

up.’



Expect the unexpected seems to be the safest policy. Tari Hibbitt,

managing director of Edelman PR Worldwide in London, says: ’Suppliers

will not give guarantees that they are compliant since there are many

unknowns.



While we are putting in new systems worldwide and believe we are

compliant, nobody can be sure.’



ANALYSTS: PROVIDING AN INDEPENDENT PERSPECTIVE



Journalists generally retain a healthy scepticism about what PR people

tell them. However, they are more receptive to industry analysts since

they can provide an independent perspective, particularly in complex

areas such as IT.



There are no controls over what analysts say and that is why the press

respects them. But the PR industry has a vital role in efficiently

presenting clients’ cases to analysts.



Michelle McGlocklin, associate director of Miller Shandwick Technologies

says: ’In the US it is more accepted to first go to the analysts then

the press. Otherwise the parties that get quoted can often be your

competitors.



Journalists no longer just take a company at its word, they want to see

analysts’ research and consumers like to see their endorsement in

business publications.’ She adds that before preparing for press product

launches, Miller Shandwick carries out briefings with analysts to obtain

feedback and make adjustments to messages.



Jackie Harris, account director at Noiseworks, says the international

analyst firms she targets include Gartner, META Group, IDC, Forrester,

Frost and Sullivan and Ovum. She adds: ’It’s important to influence the

influencers. Many articles in the press quote them now, so you have to

inform analysts as much as journalists. For Sun Microsystems and Lotus

Development we started analyst programmes four to six weeks ahead of the

press. Then we were able to tell journalists which analysts they could

contact and this made a big difference in getting general press interest

as well as the IT press.’



With hi-tech becoming ever more complex, only a minority of specialist

writers are really in a position to make comparisons between the various

systems coming onto the market. Generalist journalists often require

guidance from analysts but have little time to wade through reports.

This presents an opportunity for agencies. Andrew Rodaway, partner at

Oast Communications says: ’Journalists do not have time for 30-page

reports, and we can be of assistance in areas like abstracting key

points. Sometimes you can use what the analysts say to justify your

position but you must be careful how you apply it and remember that

analysts are jealous of their independence.’



Tari Hibbitt of Edelman PR Worldwide agrees, stressing that analysts’

independence must never be compromised: ’All we expect is to make our

argument to them and then they can be asked for a quote by

journalists.



The relationship always needs sensitivity. You can never bullshit an

analyst, you have to target them seriously and be prepared.’



MEDIA RELATIONS: MAXIMISING FREELANCE POTENTIAL



Hi-tech journalists are increasingly taking the freelance route by

building up specialisations and writing for a broad range of titles.

With technology offering them fast and efficient ways to communicate

with their offices and as new electronic information services grow to

support them, there are fewer reasons for journalists to work in

editorial offices.



For instance, new service Fleet Street Online provides access to online

newspapers and magazines and free e-mail addresses so that journalists

can instantly receive online press releases. Clients who can provide

information direct to freelancers are more likely to get their material

used.



Compaq set up an electronic press office on its web site last year to

provide journalists with a quick and easy information source on the

company.



While journalists working in-house for publications can often refer to

extensive press cuttings, the site is particularly useful to freelancers

requiring information quickly.



However, such direct client communication may erode agencies’ influence,

so they need to show added value.



A recent survey by Lewis PR of over 100 hi-tech freelance journalists

found that many believe that agencies lack thorough IT industry

knowledge.



Their most frequent source of information was talking to colleagues,

followed by contacts in the industry and PR consultants with the

internet increasingly being used as a source.



With industry information available on their computer systems at home,

journalists are now more inclined to go it alone as freelancers.



Tariq Khwaja of Text 100 says: ’We have found quite a few recently

packing up and going abroad since they can use technology, like e-mail,

wherever they are based. But this can make it difficult for agencies to

keep on top, they need professional staff keeping track of freelancers,

talking to them on a regular basis and sharing this information round

the agency.’ Since freelancers’ bread and butter depends on how many

words they can feed out to a variety of outlets, any agency which helps

them in maximising that task is likely to be looked on favourably.



Michelle McGlocklin, associate director of Miller Shandwick

Technologies, says: ’Freelancers usually write for many publications, so

if you can give them different angles, perhaps taking in European

aspects, they can sell it to many more sources.



’Speed is also important since they often have limited time to speak to

sources. Whoever is the fastest in responding is more likely to have

their material used. The key is building relationships and learning how

they work, since they all have very different approaches.’



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