Anticipating overwhelming demand from the public for information on
the verdict in the Louise Woodward murder trial, Judge Hiller Zobel
announced that his decision on the fate of the British au pair would be
posted on the internet. This would make US legal history and created
huge interest in the internet as to whether this would be its ’coming of
Virgin Net - which launched in November 1996 to provide a
consumer-friendly internet service to UK users - wanted to capitalise on
intense media coverage on the internet.
To raise awareness of and increase traffic through the Virgin Net site
by providing access to the biggest news story of the moment.
Following the announcement that the verdict would be posted on the
internet, the Virgin Net editorial team decided to offer its services in
Louise Woodward’s home-town of Elton, Cheshire. Internet access was
arranged for both the Rigger, the pub which became her supporters’
campaign headquarters, and also for the safe-house where Louise’s family
were staying during the trial.
Virgin Net became an official mirror site for Lawyer’s Weekly. This
meant that when UK visitors logged into the US site they were advised to
click on a button that immediately linked them to Virgin Net. This eased
pressure on the Lawyer’s Weekly website which had previously crashed.
Virgin Net’s Louise Woodward pages also carried a lot of background
detail to the story and visitors could leave comments or messages of
The technical staff in Elton became inundated with media enquiries about
the internet. Lisa Francis, PR manager for Virgin Net, was brought in to
respond to the demand for information from the many print and broadcast
journalists who had converged on the pub. It was up to her to explain
the benefits of the internet as a news tool and convince them that it
would be used this way more frequently in the future.
Francis also ended up putting together schedules of press interviews and
organised for a press conference to be held following the announcement,
ensuring that spokespeople would have time to read and absorb Judge
Zobel’s entire statement before having to comment on it.
The five days leading up to the verdict were very busy for Virgin Net
and on the day of the verdict they recorded up to 80 hits per second,
adding up to seven million hits that day. A large number of these were
from international visitors. Since September Virgin Net’s subscriber
base has increased from 65,000 to 80,000 and the Virgin Net web site is
now averaging 1.7 million hits per day, up from an average of one
million per day.
Virgin Net certainly managed to make the most of this opportunity for
web professionals to prove that the internet is worthy of all the hype
and lofty predictions about how widespread its usage will become.
In the end there was a 102-minute delay in the verdict being posted,
although this was not because of a problem with the internet - as web
professionals were keen to point out - but due to a power failure in
Perceptions of the internet as merely a secondary information source are
changing and Virgin Net has benefited as people begin to see it as an
interactive news organisation.
Client: Virgin Net
PR Team: In-house
Campaign: The Louise Woodward verdict on the internet
Timescale: 5 - 10 November
Cost: pounds 5,000