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Any right-minded person would have been disgusted to hear that the News Of The World phone hacking scandal has taken its ugliest turn, with the revelation that Milly Dowler’s mobile phone was interfered with while she was still missing.
The story marks a watershed moment for the phone hacking investigation, where the general public’s apathy has turned to rage. There is the sense that D-list celebrities and arrogant footballers are fair game for phone hacking. But a murdered schoolgirl is most definitely not.
As such, and inspired by this web page, thousands of Twitter users have started to ask the brands that prop up the News Of The World with their advertising budgets whether they will continue to do so. The implication is clear.
Many brands, including Virgin Media, WHSmith, Easyjet and PC World have been targeted and are seeing many hundreds of tweets an hour directed at them, along the following lines:
“Dear @easyJet, will you be reconsidering your advertising spend with #notw given that we now know they hacked Milly Dowler's phone?”
So far it appears that none of the brands have responded to these queries.
Crisis management requires the correct response
Listening is of course vastly overrated if sounds go in one ear and come straight back out of the other. What’s important is what you learn from what you hear, and how you adjust your behaviour, and how you respond.
PRs cannot paper over the cracks as they used to do. We’ve seen many examples of situations where a crisis becomes a full-blown customer services issue, such as the travel chaos in winter, when many passengers were turning to Twitter to find answers. This is of course one very good reason why the Twitter accounts of large companies should be owned by their service teams. But while there is lots of volume here, this is most certainly one for the corporate comms and branding director to take control of.
In this case, the question is how should you react to this type of lobbying? There are only two scenarios as far as I can see: either you don’t respond, or you do.
In the first case, you can put your fingers in your ears and hope that the baying mob goes away. They might, or then again more people might join in, as tends to be the way when things start to trend on Twitter. When that happens the noise will grow louder and more frenetic.
Alternatively, you can choose to respond. It can be impractical (and misguided) to reply to everybody personally, but in this kind of situation there needs to be a decision, and a statement put out. And perhaps one that is pinned to the top of your Twitter feed for a while.
What the brands choose to do as far as the News Of The World goes is another matter entirely, but if sentiment analysis and caring about customer opinion actually matters then there may be some risks involved in doing nothing.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this plays out for all concerned.