CRISIS MANAGEMENT: Quietly preparing for computer meltdown - Few corporations can claim to be fully prepared for looming millennium bug problems but equally few appear to have crisis management plans in hand to face potential problems

The possibility of mass computer failure looms large this year, as the time draws closer for the millennium bug to make its effects known.

The possibility of mass computer failure looms large this year, as

the time draws closer for the millennium bug to make its effects

known.



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

reputation.’



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

information campaign.



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

alarmism.



Things are even less reassuring in the public sector. Last January, the

Government set up a National Infrastructure Forum to deal with the

problem.



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

critical.



’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

behind.



’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

disasters.



In the private sector, firms will be open to finger-pointing unless they

communicate early on that they are doing everything possible to avert

problems.



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

years old.



- 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.



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