The last few months have seen a string of firms brutally punished after failing to react to PR disasters quickly.

Both Northern Rock and Mattel have been hit by huge waves of consumer panic and could have lessened the impact had they communicated more effectively, including via the web.

So is HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) doing all it can online to help people hit by its Child Benefit data disaster – the scale of which is up there with both those businesses?

Unfortunately, no.

While affiliates and media groups have been quick to react to opportunities offered by the HMRC’s error, its site still doesn’t offer much at all in the way of advice for the millions of concerned parents out there.

It has set up a helpline but isn’t yet promoting the number on its homepage. And although you can click through to an apology from someone called Dave, there aren’t any directions to further advice – whether that be on the HMRC site or somehere else on the web.

Webitpr’s Stephen Davies says the HMRC should be trying to avoid a repeat of the panic Northern Rock faced in September, when information was slow to come out:

“You have to be fast to react in a crisis communications situation, as things can escalate quickly. The web is a primary source of information that a lot of the public will be using to find out how the situation affects them.

“So at the least, you should be using your site to provide regular updates, as well as clear contact information and a Q&A that tells people what it all means. You have to do all you can to make that information as visible as possible.”

Surprisingly, banks also seem to have been slow to respond on the web.

Spokespeople have been trying to persuade people not to inundate their call centres with enquiries. But none of NatWest, HSBC, Lloyds TSB, Barclays, Halifax and the Royal Bank of Scotland have made any obvious efforts to offer alternatives on their homepages.

We also can’t find any evidence that they, or the government, have started to use paid search ads to direct people to their information. As the run on Northern Rock showed, they would be able to lessen the load on other resources by being first out there on the web.

It ain’t rocket science. Magazine publishers and affiliates ha ve already been making efforts to acquire traffic through online channels. Both are already using PPC ads on Google to acquire traffic - and are likely to benefit from the shortage of information on government sites.

Related research:

Online PR Roundtable Notes

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PRs ‘still to get to grips with the web’

Northern Rock website struggles to cope with strain

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