Does a PR white wash really wash these days?

The Twitterverse and blogging sites were awash recently with scathing comments about US internet provider Comcast’s handling of a customer call. For those who haven’t heard, a customer (who also happens to be a tech journalist) called up to terminate his internet service. What followed was an epic fail in customer service – where the agent effectively refused to listen or process the termination request.

Unfortunately (or depending on your position) the journalist had the presence of mind to record the call and then utilised his thousands of twitter followers to share it with the world.

As the call began to circulate and it became evident that it was about to go viral, how did Comcast respond? Actually its response was PR textbook perfect – used widely in both consumer and B2B PR situations. So of course, that stopped the recording in its tracks and ensured a conciliatory tweet from the journalist acknowledging that he was perhaps a little harsh – right? Wrong; if anything, the apologetic tweet that aimed to take responsibility for the handling of the call did nothing to dampen the fervor and in fact further fueled the flames.

So what went wrong? If Comcast handled the crisis by the book, why wasn’t it able to bring the issue under control? Well there appears to be more than one factor at play here.

Firstly the tweet effectively laid responsibility firmly at the door of the call handler. While I believe this was probably unintentional, the wording of the tweet implies where the company thinks responsibility lies. This caused a further backlash as observers rightly added that the company’s training and process for incentivising its call centre handlers was more likely to blame. In this day and age, transparency and honesty is not just expected, it’s required.

However, the bigger issue here is that we now live in an era of ethical and responsible business. Over the past ten years consumers have become much more aware of the role that businesses play in society at large and want to believe that the companies they buy from reflect their own ethical and moral standards. And companies will be judged on this basis.

So how could Comcast have handled it better? It’s actually hard to say. Perhaps using a little more judgment in reading the situation and reacting specifically to it rather than applying a PR broadstroke might have helped. Direct dialogue with the customer would have hopefully done some damage limitation; but maybe combining these PR tactics with an open and honest review of its processes in line with a more ethical way of doing business could have gone a long way to minimising the impact of the now infamous telephone call. For front-line customer service reps it’s worth remembering that it’s not just the company who now has the ability to say ‘some calls maybe recorded for training purposes’.

Claire Lamb is a consultant at Skout. She’s worked in technology PR for 20 years and has survived more bubbles than Michael Jackson.

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