FOCUS: CRISIS TELEMARKETING - Safety nets to prevent disaster/Organisations can find themselves in the front line at any time and many are now choosing to avoid public and media backlash with pre-emptive telemarketing. By Rebecca Dowman

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And, if ever proof of this aphorism was needed, it came in October, when the media caught wind of new research into the risks of certain brands of the contraceptive pill.

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. And, if ever proof of this

aphorism was needed, it came in October, when the media caught wind of

new research into the risks of certain brands of the contraceptive


Thousands of women immediately stopped taking the Pill, despite the fact

that detailed findings actually suggested that only three out of 10,000

women were in increased danger. The apparent result has been 3,000 extra

abortions and a looming summer baby boom.

Critics pointed the finger of blame at the Department of Health for not

getting the full facts out quickly enough: for advising concerned women

to contact their family doctors, yet failing to inform all GPs before

the storm broke, and, in the words of Labour health spokesman Chris

Smith, for its ’utterly inadequate’ helpline arrangements.

In short, as a result of its poor crisis information management, the DoH

suffered the media and public backlash that every company dreads, and

which many try to prevent with crisis management planning.

Increasingly, telephone information lines - often provided by

telemarketing agencies - are used as a safety net as part of such

pre-emptive planning.

Rui Fiske, an account manager with telemarketing firm Procter and

Procter Direct, says that many firms are now opting to establish ongoing

relationships with telemarketing companies, as part of their crisis

planning, rather than calling on firms when the maelstrom is upon


Such ongoing relationships can take the form of establishing a customer

care line, which becomes a helpline during a crisis, or an arrangement

whereby a guaranteed number of operators and lines will be made

available, if needed, within a given time.

’Companies have learnt that crises can strike at any time,’ says


’Setting up a telemarketing campaign takes time. If you already have the

people and systems in place, you will deal with it more effectively and,

in the long term, it could be more cost effective, as setting up systems

hurriedly can be costly.’

Having such standby arrangements provides insurance back-up for


Some industries keep their own resource standing by - British Airways,

for example, has a purpose-built crisis customer care centre, Epic, at

Heathrow - but, for most companies, this would prove expensive and


Fiske believes this emphasis on telephone crisis services reflects

growing consumer muscle. He says: ’Consumers increasingly realise their

power and they want to build a relationship with, and get feedback from,

the companies they patronise.’

However Rosemary Brook, IPR past-president and a seasoned crisis

consultant, believes that clients still do not put enough emphasis on

tele-responsive components in their crisis planning.

’If you are planning a crisis contingency plan where you will have to

brief large numbers of consumers quickly, and you know your client is

unlikely to have the internal resources to instantly be able to handle

large volumes of calls, then telemarketing is an essential part of the

plan,’ she says.

’I think that every major company that sells consumer products - whether

food or aerosols or combustibles - can’t afford not to be prepared.

However, it is still not as common as it should be.’

PR practitioners most commonly use telemarketers for product


When consumers are alerted to product faults or contamination, either by

media exposure or pre-planned company advertisements or statements, they

want information fast - and often tens of thousands of people want

information at exactly the same time. In such cases, the utilisation of

scores of live operators speaking from the same pre-prepared script in

response to calls on hundreds of lines can be the most practical

solution for both consumer and client.

However such inbound crisis calls, where the public are prompted to make

telephone contact, are not restricted to product recalls. Other

scenarios include health scares and disasters, such as plane crashes or

bomb attacks.

In crisis situations, as in mainstream telemarketing, decisions must be

made as to the most appropriate form of service. Broadly the options are

the use of live operators, automated messages or a combination of


Tony Moss, marketing director of Leeds-based automated telemarketing

agency Interactive Media Services (IMS), claims that a taped service

offers particular benefits in a crisis situation. He says it is cost

effective, can service a huge number of callers, ensures a consistent

message and, due to the client signing off the message, allows the

customer to be aware of exactly what information is going out.

Fiske, whose company uses live operators and offers a link-up to an

automated service, via another London firm, outlines the benefits of a

live service.

’A live facility generally gives a better, more sensitive


It can also be more responsive and can be used with a whole range of

options,’ he says. ’For example, if a national newspaper has been sent

out without certain sections, in different parts of the country, there

could be around 20 possible actions. With a live operator you could just

say: ’I’m from such a place and I need the travel supplement or the

business section.’’

Steven Jack, business development manager at telemarketing firm

Intelmark, explains that, in certain crisis situations, operators can

transfer or ’patch’ a call to the client’s site when particularly

sensitive issues are involved.

’If we had a very upset caller, or where a discussion was touching on

liabilities or legal issues, we could patch the call to the client. We

would arrange in advance which sensitive areas we could handle and which

ones we would transfer to the client,’ he says. ’As far as the caller is

concerned, whatever part of the country they are being patched to, they

would think they had been transferred internally. They would not have

been aware they were dealing with a third party.’

After the crisis has subsided, many clients choose to follow up the

incident with outbound calls to their customer base. Such calls can make

use of customer data captured during the previous activity and can, for

example, prepare for a product re-launch or simply continue to emphasise

good intentions.

Data gained from incoming calls can also be used to send reimbursements

or replacements to customers. Some telemarketing companies, like

Intelmark, handle both the data-capture and such caller fulfilment.

Chris Woodcock, Countrywide Porter Novelli clients services director,

says: ’Intelmark have a warehouse facility on-site. So, when a customer

calls, their name, address and other relevant information appears on the

operator’s screen, then, at the touch of a button, the data goes over

the line to the fulfilment operation. Then, whatever is being sent out -

such as a voucher or an apology - can be sent out within minutes.’

Collecting data on the level of incoming calls also allows a

telemarketing firm to accurately pitch the number of lines and

operators. Typically, the volume will be highest during the first three

days, after which it tails off - unless, that is, the issue is

highlighted in consumer media such as the Consumers’ Association’s

Which? or BBC1’s Watchdog.

Woodcock says: ’What you are trying to do is to appear utterly

responsible, so that callers are not kept waiting, yet, at the same

time, you do not want excess capacity. The beauty of call-logging is

that you can scale resources up or down, depending on the call


Other crisis services, provided by telemarketing firms, include

providing overflow facilities for companies whose own call centres are

overloaded and in-house recording studios for capturing automated


Despite the benefits of using call centres as part of the crisis

armoury, they do have their limits. Mike Regester, a partner with issues

and crisis management specialist Regester Larkin, says: ’If you were

dealing with a member of the public wondering whether to use their

vacuum cleaner, or a type of detergent, telemarketing systems could be

used very effectively.

But if you heard on the radio that the place your husband worked at had

blown up, you wouldn’t want to speak to a telemarketing person.’

Mike Seymour, Burson-Marsteller’s European crisis management director,

stresses that it is vital to get the telephone service right.

’At the end of the day, your front-line is your consumer hot-line,

reception, security and switchboard. If you do not get it right you will

be interpreted as uncaring and unresponsive,’ he says.

Without sufficient lines, skilled staff and a tightly co-ordinated

approach where media announcements are in step with customer

information, he warns, ’the dull thud of the self-inflicted wound is a

distinct possibility’.


Crisis management specialists advocate plotting crisis strategy -

including telephone call centres - well before a potential crisis

scenario looms on the horizon.

As part of its Reflex crisis communications package, Omnicom-owned

Countrywide Porter Novelli offers links with 12 specialist suppliers.

These firms offer such services as telemarketing - via another Omnicom

company Intelmark - legal and insurance support, field marketing and

medical advice.

Countrywide’s Chris Woodcock says the telephone system aspect of the

crisis strategy is worked out between the client, the agency and

Intelmark, with clients generally catering for the ’worst case


The resulting package will typically involve agreements on the number of

staffed lines to be available within 24 hours of a ’callout’; dummy

crisis runs; the expected maximum number of calls; the ratio of live to

automated operators; the availability of a dedicated 0800 number

throughout the year and any requirements for logging the length,

frequency and geography of calls.

Woodcock says the telemarketing firm adds more than just technical

expertise to the mix. ’They also contribute from a communications point

of view.’ she stresses. ’They work with us on parts of the script, on

making us aware of trends and on analysing customer information.’ Steven

Jack, Intelmark business development manager, also emphasises the

usefulness of telemarketer involvement at the planning stage.

’It gives us the chance to understand the client’s products and

market-place,’ he says. ’It also allows us to brainstorm and to set up

agreed procedures, not only in the call centre but in regard to our

links with the client’s organisation.’ Chris Woodcock says the virtual

team, of client, PR agency and telemarketing firm, remains central to

the handling of any subsequent crisis.

’If you do not work together, you get all manner of miscommunications

arising. All sorts of decisions have to be made together, depending on

what the client is going through,’ she says.

’If a client is getting in a telephone response facility it is not just

a matter of nodding and signing on the dotted line. They have to be

prepared to be involved.’


Certain packets of Walkers cheese and onion and ready salted crisps

contained more than flavour this autumn - 20 pence-sized pieces of


Faced with the problem, which stemmed from a shattered ten centimetre

production line optical lens, Pepsi-owned Walkers took the decision,

after consulting its PR agency Hill and Knowlton, to withdraw possibly

affected batches - totalling nine million packets of crisps.

David Brotzen, H&K’s issues and crisis management director, recalls that

the initial customer complaint reached Walkers on Monday, 4


The first returned product was then analysed in the company’s

laboratories on Tuesday afternoon and later that day, after the lab

reported, the decision was taken to recall certain batches.

The next 24 hours were spent implementing the planned crisis avoidance

strategy, at the heart of which was an information line managed by

telemarketing company Merit Direct.

Merit Direct, part of telemarketing giant the Sitel Corporation, has

been retained by Walkers since last April. As part of that service it

had already drafted a general proposal of its approach to potential

crises and had established a dedicated 0800 number.

On being briefed by Walkers on Tuesday evening, Merit Direct set up a

tiered telephone system involving automated telemarketing company IMS as

well as its own centres.

In the first instance, callers reached an IMS recorded statement, which,

among its information, gave a Merit Direct number for callers who wished

to speak to a live operator. Those consumers who called Merit Direct

were connected to Sitel offices in Kingston-upon-Thames, Rickmansworth

or Brussels.

The service, which took 25,000 calls in three weeks, was scripted to

advise consumers and small retailers on reimbursement and to offer

reassurance that, according to medical advice, it was very unlikely a

person could inadvertently swallow one of the pieces of glass.

As Merit Direct concentrated on the telemarketing aspect of the

strategy, other simultaneous communication activity included drafting

scripts and press statements, negotiating national newspaper space for

product recall notices for Thursday’s editions, contacting trade

customers, liaising with Walkers’ local environmental health office and

launching an H&K-staffed crisis press bureau.

Dominic Doyle, a Merit Direct account director, says that although the

facility was handling one call every three seconds, the volume was much

less than anticipated: a fact he puts down partly to low media coverage

of the incident resulting from press absorption with the US presidential

election results.


’PR, or at least media relations, is basically selling. The products are

stories, the customers are journalists and the sales manager is the

client,’ says Marilyn Davidson, director of Learning Curve, a company

which specialises in communications skills training for the recruitment


An insulting diminution of the science of PR? Perhaps. But a recent IPR

seminar on ’Selling Your Story to the Media’, which aired a similar

argument, attracted an audience of 100-plus PR players.

Davidson, who led the event, says: ’PR is not traditionally an industry

where companies provide sales training, because people traditionally

look for other skills. But what PR people do is selling, pure and


And the sales tool they are invariably using, and with which they must

be proficient, is the telephone. The importance of effective telephone

use, for all business, not just PR, was emphasised by last September’s

Henley Centre report Teleculture Futures, which built on its earlier

influential study Teleculture 2000.

Among its findings, the report stressed that, ’excellent telephone

service will generate word of mouth recommendations. It follows that bad

service will not only cause organisations to lose customers, but

potential customers as well.’

It went on to warn: ’In the battle to engender customer longevity, loyal

attitudes and repurchasing behaviour, few businesses have invested

sufficiently to ensure that the success of their telephone operations

contributes to this process ... This is a major failing of businesses


Despite the critical importance of telephone skills to the industry,

Marilyn Davidson says PR people often don’t make the most of the


’They are personable, have strong characters and have a great deal of

enthusiasm, but, if that enthusiasm is not channelled, it can run away

with them,’ she says. ’They can then get into dialogue with a

journalist, based on their perception of what the journalist wants -

rather than focusing on what is actually important to the


The IPR seminar was born out of a course designed by Davidson and Hilary

Sutcliffe, joint managing director of Addition PR, for Addition’s own


Addition is currently drawing on another weapon in telemarketing’s

armoury - the database. It is collating computer-based information on

around 200 key journalists which, apart from their specialist areas,

could include such data as spouses’ names and personal interests.

The database, says Sutcliffe, is another tool in getting to know the

journalist and what she or he really wants.

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