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
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
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
’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
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
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
CASE STUDY: COUNTRYWIDE RELIES ON ITS REFLEX
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
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.’
CASE STUDY: CRUNCH TIME FOR WALKERS CRISPS
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
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
MEDIA RELATIONS: TALKING TELEPHONE TACTICS
’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.