The possibility of mass computer failure looms large this year, as
the time draws closer for the millennium bug to make its effects
Everything from microwaves to traffic lights are said to be at risk,
but, with less than 12 months before it strikes, many people are still
unclear about what this will entail.
This is partly to be expected, given the technical nature of the
problem, but public confusion has been exacerbated by an, at best,
patchy PR effort, in particular on the part of corporate users.
Scott McDermott, senior director of international communications at
software and networking supplier Candle Corporation, warns: ’Most big
organisations claim to have solved the problem. But any organisation
without a crisis communications plan in place is risking its
Scare stories suggest that aircraft could fall out of the sky on New
Year’s Eve. British Airways chief executive Bob Ayling has been working
in conjunction with the Government-backed advisory body Action 2000 to
help inform and reassure the public.
BA is helping the International Air Transport Associationto conduct
research into the readiness of airports and systems worldwide. The
airline says it will devise an emergency communications plan once the
results are in.
BT has allocated pounds 350 million to the problem and is planning
communications strategies for a wide range of crises. Next year, the
company intends to commit significant funds to a widespread public
Midland Bank, like much of the finance sector, has taken proactive steps
to publicise the problem, including roadshows, a best practice video and
a wealth of literature.
Gerard Long, senior manager for Midland’s Year 2000 programme, says the
bank has ensured its own compliance, but warns: ’Much of our effort has
revolved around educating (business) customers to take proper action, as
their awareness is seriously lacking.’
PR agencies say they are working on awareness-raising PR plans, but few
have so far been asked to draw up specific crisis plans in case of
system failure. But critics say companies are leaving it too late. As PR
Week went to press, Action 2000 warned that computer failures could
occur as early as this week.
Hi-tech specialist Text 100 is among the few agencies already discussing
crisis PR with its clients. Software giant Microsoft is working with
Text 100 on a plan to deal with customer complaints about any software
problems occuring in January 2000. As it is such a high-profile company,
Microsoft is aware that it may find itself blamed by consumers and the
media for problems with other firms’ products. As Text 100 director Mark
Adams observes: ’Hi-tech companies are likely to receive most of the
blame when the bug strikes.’
Many companies take the view that the PR effort is dependent on the
technical state-of-play, which is still under review. There is also a
fine line to be drawn between communicating potential problems and
Things are even less reassuring in the public sector. Last January, the
Government set up a National Infrastructure Forum to deal with the
Communications are being handled by Action 2000. Information has been
made available on the internet and via a telephone helpline, but the
press offices of individual public bodies, including vital services such
as hospitals, fire and ambulance services, will not deal directly with
enquiries on the bug.
Robin Guenier, head of millennium bug pressure group Taskforce 2000, is
’The public sector has been too bureaucratic and is taking too long,’ he
says. ’Bad news would have been easier to accept early on, but most
district councils and Government departments have left it too late to
complete adequate testing programmes and reassure the public.’
The Audit Commission published an investigation last June into action
being taken by local government, the NHS and emergency services. A
Stitch in Time concluded that all sectors were behind schedule. The
Commission has since warned that, if progress is not made in the next
few months, it will publicly name authorities that are lagging
’Things are certainly going to go wrong,’ says the Audit Commission’s
head of PR, Adrian Roxan. ’Public humiliation may be needed to bring
some authorities up to scratch.’
Communications in the emergency sector will help mitigate any
In the private sector, firms will be open to finger-pointing unless they
communicate early on that they are doing everything possible to avert
FACT FILE: THE MILLENNIUM BUG
- The ’bug’ refers to the inability of many computer systems to cope
with the change from 31 December, 1999 to 1 January, 2000. Some software
uses just two digits to represent dates, so computers may think 00 means
1900 instead of 2000.
- Millennium problems have already arisen. A few years ago a supply of
corned beef was interpreted by Marks & Spencer’s equipment as being 96
- Many systems contain hidden ’embedded’ computer chips, meaning many
malfunctions may be unanticipated, making the final cost and impact of
failure impossible to assess.
- The first date for major system failure is actually 1 January, 1999,
because many companies will begin making bookings for the year 2000 and
because the digits 99 have been used as the last date for logging
information in many databases.