The occasions when international crises strike individual companies
are few and far between, but when they occur, they can be devastating on
a global level for those that are unprepared.
A central part of dealing with any crisis today is setting up one or more
telephone helplines to inform the various affected audiences. Normally,
one telephone line is established with an automated system, routing the
caller according to their enquiry.
On an international scale, however, a whole call centre can be established
to cope with complications such as language barriers.
Telemarketing company Direct Dialog’s managing director Kevin Burne
suggests that in the international arena, there should be an automatic
detection of telephone calls for different audiences.
’There needs to be a classification of calls included in the system to
determine whether they are from very urgent or angry callers; from other
businesses which may want to know if there’s a normal business; or calls
to handle the media.’
One of the most important elements in handling calls in a crisis is for a
compnay to humanise the process. For a company which is not prepared in
times of a crisis, it is essential to bring in trained operators who are
experienced in coping with crises and with callers who can range from the
concerned and anxious to those that are angry or upset. Operators are
provided either from a list maintained by the company concerned, or by a
telemarketing company and are trained to quickly pass on the required
A trained operator will be able to guide the caller, and to establish the
message, sometimes working from a script provided by the company.
This can bring reassurance and help the caller accept these messages.
Bearing this in mind, one of the most obvious barriers facing a company
involved in an international crisis is that of language. If prepared,
groups of people with language skills can be pooled in one call centre or
in telemarketing bureaux around the world.
However, if a crisis requires several call centres to be set up across
Europe because of language differences, telemarketing centres in Brussels
and Netherlands tend to have the highest proportion of multilingual
speakers, according to telemarketing company TSC UK’s managing director
SITEL Europe plc’s vice chairman Martin Shields says: ’We would deal with
a crisis on a local level because of the language barriers. Rather than
handling it from one location, we would break it into units to achieve
more effective and rapid results.’
The SITEL Corporation Worldwide is able to operate in 30 languages with
more than 70 call centres throughout the world. But while poised to deal
with the eventuality of an international crisis, Shields admits that the
company has not yet been called on to handle a truly global event.
It is also suggested, although not essential, that international companies
facing a cross-border crisis offer a toll-free telephone number for
BT offers a toll-free international service, although Broadsystems’
managing director Alex Green says: ’I would offer it only so that friends
and relatives can call without having to worry about paying for the
Airline operators are inevitably some of the heaviest investors in crisis
telemarketing. Sudden occurrences, such as crashes, require advanced
planning to ensure that there are telephones and a way of activating
operators in the event of a disaster.
British Airways was a pioneer in this field, establishing its facilities
in 1972. According to British Airways’ senior manager, Operations Control
Contingencies Ron Lindsay, its call centre has been used as a model around
The EPIC (Emergency Procedure Information Centre) is a call centre that is
activated for a major event, such as an aircraft accident, which works
closely with the Metropolitan Police. It is used only for family and
friends of relatives who may be on a particular flight. In times of
crisis, it can be manned by 600 trained British Airways staff and
volunteers who are drawn from a pool in London. The database catalogues
different skills, including languages. A dedicated media line is also
handled by the press office.
In an emergency, there are over 60 telephones with a duplex to two
telephone exchanges, which means that if one exchange fails, BA can switch
to the other. The calls come into a filtering system and a backlog of
calls are held in an automatic queue which plays a reassuring recorded
message before being put through to initial operators who will identify
the credibility of the caller by asking the name of the passenger and his
or her first initial before passing the call onto two carousels of ten
agents. These agents are allowed to provide nothing but the facts they
have at their disposal. ’In these circumstances, we don’t want to build
expectations as to survivors,’ says Lindsay.
The centre can handle 600 calls in one hour and the operation can be
activated within 25 minutes of notification of an emergency. If the
emergency happens during the night, an on-call team will activate the
centre and summon volunteers within an hour.
EPIC holds four mock emergencies a year including one major emergency
training session carried out in conjunction with the British Airport
The OCIC (Operation Control Incident Centre) is situated next door to EPIC
and is the command centre for the BA crisis management team. It is the
nerve centre of corporate response where strategy is developed and
The press office liaises with OCIC to have a cross flow of accurate
information for television and radio. Press releases are constantly
generated as new information comes out with the aim of pre-empting
inaccurate and damaging information that may be broadcast.
’We have to make sure that what gets out is up-to-date and accurate rather
than being reactive,’ says BA spokesman Jamie Bowden.
While the call centre is getting ready to open, the press office aims to
issue a statement within 45 minutes of the incident.
EPIC and OCIC were both working together during several incidents last
year including the KLM emergency landing last summer and the Virgin
Atlantic emergency landing last November at Heathrow Airport. EPIC was
also used in last month’s fire at Heathrow’s Terminal One for BA staff
Other airlines such as South African Airways, Cathay Pacific and Singapore
Airlines are to emulate BA’s example by establishing hubs in Johannesburg,
Hong Kong and Singapore respectively. BA also contracts its centre out to
78 other carriers.
The UK Foreign Office also has emergency procedures in line for
international crises involving British citizens. Its prime objective is to
protect British nationals abroad. It has procedures for any sort of
emergency including evacuations, nuclear disasters, earthquakes coups and
In cases of emergency, a telephone number is released through the
When called, a recorded message is given and details of the incident are
given. On the same message, a further number is given for inquiries for
friends and relatives. Ten trained telephonists are brought in to man 15
lines, guided by whichever six members of the consular division are on
standby. The telephone system displays the speed with which calls stack
The operators who take the calls take details such as the name of the
person or persons concerned, a phone number and a UK address. This
database is used to contact callers again when more information becomes
In the Luxor massacre in Egypt last year, for example, six British
nationals were killed. The consular emergency unit was activated and more
than 1,500 calls were taken in three days.
For most companies planning for an international crisis is a one-way draw
on funds which is unlikely to show any sort of return. Even many
telemarketing companies have not had the opportunity to handle a worldwide
crisis. But as the business world continues to grow smaller, in-house
teams, PR consultancies and telemarketing suppliers cannot afford to
ignore the global communications consequences of any incident.
CASE STUDY: Trying to overturn effects of a ’moose test’
Car manufacturer Mercedes-Benz made a strategic move one-and-a-half
years ago to develop a range of luxury cars for the lower-end
Mercedes hoped its reputation for safe, high-quality vehicles would carry
over to a range of smaller cars.
It designed the A-class and, in 1995, began promoting it on a tour of
cities across Germany and continental Europe (not the UK). But just as it
was arriving in European showrooms last October, the A-Class hit a speed
A Swedish journalist was testing the A-Class for a motor magazine’s ’Car
of the Year’ award. He conducted what is called the ’moose test’, designed
to simulate a swerve to avoid elk on Swedish roads. The car flipped
To make matters worse, it did so in front of television and press cameras
and the Swedish journalist held a press conference to announce to the
world what had happened.
A core crisis team of 20 people, including the divisions of PR, marketing,
engineering, supplies and logistics, was formed Roland Klein, spokesman
for Mercedes’ parent company Daimler-Benz, says that the communications
task was to ensure that Mercedes’ reputation for safety was not
Meanwhile, Mercedes-Benz accident engineers discovered that the tyres used
on the A-Class could slip off the wheel rim in extreme conditions.
The PR members of the crisis team developed a question and answer document
for a helpline. This was translated into different languages and the Q&As
were updated every day as new information was released. The message was
the same in every country.
Two days later, a press conference was held for 200 journalists at which
the tyre problem was announced. At this point, charge-free numbers and
call centres were launched in each European country where the car was
available. The key messages sent to each caller were that Mercedes-Benz
was still the ’safest car on the market’ and that engineers had identified
the weaknesses in the A-Class and were addressing them immediately. The
final message was that Mercedes-Benz was value for money and the top car
in every respect.
More than 150,000 consumers requested copies of a free video on the ’moose
test’ and the fundamental safety of the A-Class. Mercedes-Benz wrote to
all customers who had purchased an A-Class and those who had placed
Another video was filmed at a PR event at which the Swedish journalist and
former Formula 1 driver Niki Lauda tested the newly improved A-Class.
’The message was again passed that we had made a mistake, the problems
were rectified and that we had satisfied our harshest critics,’ says
An outbound call exercise offered 2,600 existing A-Class owners a C-class
car on loan while their car was modified. Only one-third of existing
owners took up the offer.
During the month that Mercedes-Benz had its crisis, sales only slipped
from 100,000 the previous month to 96,000. Once the crisis was resolved,
the sales jumped back to 100,000.
CASE STUDY: Swiss Bank’s search for dormant accounts
When the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II was commemorated in
1995, eastern European archives were opened to the public triggering a
discussion in Switzerland about the dormant accounts of those who had
faced Nazi persecution. In late 1995, the Swiss Bank Association (SBA)
ombudsman asked for all Swiss banks to report on dormant assets.
The SBA established a helpline as a central contact point in Zurich in
early 1996, allowing people who believed their families held dormant
accounts to give personal details and to initiate a search. Calls were
made from all over the world and more than 13 million Swiss francs of the
initial 40 million Swiss francs traced were paid out to these
As a result of these discoveries the search spread worldwide. The Swiss
government also set up independent commissions to research all names
linked to accounts.
At the same time, preparations were made to establish helplines once the
names were published. Charge-free numbers were established for 30
countries and call centres were located around the world in Sydney, Tel
Aviv, Budapest, Basle and New York. Several charge-free numbers were
assigned to some call centres to cater for language requirements.
Callers could order information packs which included a claim form and
directions, a questionnaire (in 19 different languages) and a list of
contact offices and charge-free numbers. Also included was a letter from
the SBA explaining the initiative and expressing the banks’ commitment
to returning the funds. The information packs were developed by PR
representatives from many of the large Swiss banks, the SBA and New
York-based PR agency, Kekst and Company.
Hundreds of operators were hired and brought to training centres in Zurich
and New York for a one-day training session. Most included native-speakers
of 19 different languages. This training involved rigorous psychological
preparation which enabled operators to listen to the caller, react to
tones of voice and to stay calm and friendly. One training course employed
a survivor from the Auschwitz concentration camp who offered to talk about
her experience and to prepare the operators for what they might hear.
After months of research, in July 1997, the names of holders of accounts
opened before World War II were published in newspapers around the world
and on the internet (HYPERLINK http://www.dormantaccounts.gh) by the
Published alongside these names were charge-free numbers for 30
To date, more than 55,000 calls have been taken from all over the world
and more than 6,000 claims accounted for, and payments made. The internet
site has had over 200,000 hits.
For the Swiss Bank Association, the call centres have been extremely
successful in communicating its message. ’We sent the message out that we
had a commitment to return this money,’ says Swiss Bank Association
spokesman Christophe Meier. ’We reached out to all four corners of this
planet and gave everyone throughout the world an easy opportunity to get
in touch with the banks.’
Q&As: SCRIPTING THE WAY TO SUCCESS IN A CRISIS
In times of crisis, ensuring that a coherent message is transmitted to
affected consumers requires a carefully crafted, and adhered to,
Such a script can include Qustion and Answers (Q&As) and frequently asked
questions (FAQs). In some cases, telephone operators are able to utilise
technology by entering caller’s queries into pre prepared computer
packages which can generate an immediate and appropriate answer.
In a crisis, the script should be a collaboration between the
telemarketing company and the PR team or agency representing the affected
company. ’The exact message you want to get across needs to come from the
horse’s mouth,’ says managing director of telemarketing company
Broadsystems, Alex Green.
There also must be consistency of messages on an international scale,
particularly if there is more than one set of call centres around the
world. ’It is important to give the same message out; giving the facts
and reassurance about the company or brand,’ says Sally Penn, managing
director of ADS Telemarketing.
Once the message has been agreed, the structure of the script should be
designed to include an introduction, the presentation which will include
the message or questions and answers, and, of course, a conclusion.
According to Dianne Hickerson, senior vice president of the SITEL
Corporation Worldwide, the script must contain just the right amount of
’In a crisis situation, there is no tolerance for paraphrasing or
The most challenging part of writing the script is honing the message.
’It is essential to translate the message into the script,’ says Dineshi
Kodituwakku, a consultant for TSC UK. ’The writer is having to transfer
one-way communication into two-way communication.’
Kodituwakku says that the script must communicate three things. Firstly,
it must reinforce the brand. Secondly, the operator must get the customer
to trust the brand in order for it to have credibility. Thirdly, once that
trust has been established, the operator is better able to pass on the
message to the caller.
SITEL’s Hickerson says: ’Over the telephone, an operator has a singular
objective during a crisis - to make a quick assessment of the caller’s
mood and tone. Based on this assessment, inform the caller with factual
data, ask questions through inquiry and move into a solution.’