Rapid action needed to kill off bug threat

It will affect more than three million companies, cost an estimated 23bn to put right, and has seen companies such as Unilever put 300m aside to cope with its impact.

The millennium “bug” is less than two years from potentially wreaking havoc on computer systems and manufacturing industry, not just in the UK, but worldwide. And the battle to convince companies to take it seriously is about to start in earnest with the appointment of a trio of PR, direct marketing and advertising agencies by the Government backed Action 2000 (MW January 8).

The trio, the Quentin Bell Organisation, WWAV Rapp Collins and BMP DDB, have been hired to develop a marketing strategy by March which may, or may not, include an above-the-line advertising campaign.

Although details of any campaign are yet to be disclosed, there are already dissenting voices arguing that the marketing effort will be at least 12 months late when it rolls out, that time is running out, and that what is required is a bold ad campaign – a call to action – in the style of previous Health Education campaigns, which used fear to encourage people to act.

Robin Guenier, executive director of Task Force 2000, an independent body created to raise awareness of the “bug” and originally Government funded, says most companies will have to tackle the problem by the end of 1998.

In total, Task Force 2000 has received 350,000 from the Department of Trade and Industry, but Guenier criticised the Government last September for not acting quickly enough. The Government announced the creation of Action 2000 later that month.

“The only way it can work is to have advertising at the same level as the campaign done for Aids awareness and the [BT one phone day],” he says. “We can only get people to take action if you go through a process of marketing.”

Guenier’s view is echoed by other sources.

Rob Wirszycz, chairman of the Computing Services and Software Association which represents ??? and also a member of the Action 2000 advisory panel, would like to see a campaign which would shock people along the lines of previous Aids and drink-driving campaigns.

But the problem with bracketing health awareness with protecting your computer is that one threatens your life and the other doesn’t. Managers have to be convinced to act and to act now. The computer services group Cap Gemini estimates that ?? companies will miss the year 2000 deadline.

The Millennium bug is caused by the inability of many computerised systems and other electronic timers to recognise the change of date from 1999 to 2000. Many programmes contain only the last two digits of the year resulting in computer clocks switching back to 1900 at the turn of the millennium. There is the added problem of an IT skills shortage which is expected to start to bite in April, threatening to slow down the process of change.

Back in September, Guenier called on the government to provide Taskforce 2000 with an additional 500,000 for a high-profile campaign to run until the end of last year.

“The campaign would have had to focus on decision-makers,” he says. “Other countries are now doing what we could have done. We have now wasted the most crucial four to five months in my opinion.”

Pointing to Holland, he says that the Dutch government has enlisted the help of the former head of Philips [Jan Timmer] to front its 10m campaign.

In December, the DTI set up Action 2000, with a budget of 3m until March 2000, to offer advice to those companies that have decided to act on the threat of the “bug”.

Headed by bug Tsar Don Cruickshank – on day release from his post as director general of the telecoms watchdog Oftel until March – Action 2000 will launch an advisory hotline and Website on January 22. High-profile business figures and pledges of support from large companies are being sought for the launch, including a possible appearance by Tony Blair.

“In marketing terms, we have to be careful about the messages and finding out what it is that is stopping people taking it [the “bug”] seriously and we are doing research into that,” says Ian Eddison, acting director of Action 2000. “We are having to think about messages getting across that are going to stop people in their tracks.

“This should not be regarded as a technical issue – it’s about how it will affect a business. The other thing that I am concerned about with an Aids-style campaign is what the response would be from the general public,” he says.

Eddison is anxious to avoid mass panic about personal computers which may well be updated before the millennium, and is more concerned about manufacturing plants with sensors geared up to recognising dates.

The target audience is small to medium-sized companies with less than 200 employees, because larger companies, such as Unilever, have already started to act. Dr John Perkins of the National Computing Centre who is chair of the Advice and Good Practice Group at Action 2000 says: “Awareness is already high, but we have to get through to get companies to take action.”

The marketing strategy, planned in the next two months, will have to convince companies to act and give them a route for that action.

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