Get ready for Y2K false alarms, panic
August 11, 1999
by Kathleen Ohlson and Thomas Hoffman
(IDG) -- Some call it the "Bubba effect." Early on Jan. 1, some hard-drinking good old boys drive home from a party, hit a utility pole and knock out power across a wide swath of the state. Panicked residents, fearing that the doomsday predictions of Y2K pundits have come true, overload the telephone circuits and bring that network crashing down, too.
Such a power outage could happen on any New Year's Day. But this particular January, it will be a living nightmare for corporate CIOs and year 2000 project managers, who will have to field calls -- from the CEO to the media hordes -- asking whether the company is suffering a Y2K computer meltdown.
Taking the blame
In fact, it may be hard to tell immediately, and experts predict Y2K will get falsely blamed for all sorts of problems.
Earlier this year, the New Jersey Department of Human Services in Trenton was the first organization to experience all the media attention that comes with a year 2000 glitch -- even though there really was no Y2K problem after all (see "It wasn't a Y2K glitch after all," link below).
"It was like moths to a flame" when the media discovered that $23 million in food aid had been awarded 10 days early to welfare recipients, said Jacqueline Tencza, a spokeswoman for the agency.
At first, an agency spokesperson and reporters assumed the error was Y2K-related because the software had recently been fixed to handle the century date rollover.
The story broke Sunday, March 21, with three or four calls from the national media, including The New York Times, Tencza said, yielding headlines such as "Y2K Glitch Delivers Food Stamps Early in New Jersey."
The episode escalated to as many as 30 inquiries from state and national media and five to 10 from trade publications within the first few days, she said.
TV newscasts gave the story a lot of airplay, showing welfare recipients on supermarket shopping sprees. "A technical error became very tangible," Tencza said.
The welfare agency is accustomed to dealing with high-profile news stories, but this problem hit on a weekend, when the regular technical staff wasn't available to investigate.
By Tuesday, technicians knew what had happened: A worker had manually typed in the April 1 distribution date but had omitted the last digit in 1999. As a result, a contractor's computer read the year as 1990, prematurely distributing the benefits.
That incident likely won't be the only year 2000 false alarm. And companies may have trouble distinguishing ordinary problems from Y2K computer glitches when the phones start ringing off the hook.
"If a tree falls on Dec. 31 and knocks down phone lines just before midnight, I don't have any idea how a [telephone] company will distinguish that from a year 2000 problem," said Capers Jones, chief scientist at Artemis Management Systems Inc. in Burlington, Mass.
"We believe that Y2K has the potential to be a major disruption for companies ... even if not a single computer malfunctions," said Christopher Komisarjevsky, CEO of Burson-Marsteller, the big New York public relations conglomerate. "That's because the millennium bug is no longer just a problem of technology, but one of perception," he said.
The stage is set for "irrational consumer behavior" and media sensationalism, so companies need to be prepared for public relations disasters as well as computer disasters, Komisarjevsky said.
Already, Y2K is replacing El Niņo as the national scapegoat for anything that goes wrong.
In June, American Airlines gate agents in Chicago told travelers their flights were delayed by Y2K testing (see "FAA: Don't be fooled by airlines' claims," link below), but the delays actually were caused by the installation of new radar computers at air traffic control towers.
American spokesman John Hotard acknowledged that gate agents often look for a quick, convenient answer to give harried passengers. "Y2K testing can be an easy answer to give for delays when they really don't know," he said.
Some businesses might not want to say whether a particular problem is Y2K-related, preferring to keep that information "close to the vest" to avoid causing a public panic, said Kazim Isfahani, an analyst at Giga Information Group Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. But experts in crisis communications said it's vital to plan for Y2K calamities and deal honestly with the public, shareholders and business partners.
"Say what happened swiftly and accurately" to foster an image of credibility and reliability with the media and the public, advised Steven Link, president of Lexicom Communications Corp. in Los Angeles.
KeySpan Energy Corp., a utility in New York., has already considered how it should react if, say, a drunken driver takes out an electric pole on New Year's Eve and the accident causes a widespread power outage. "If there was a power outage that was not Y2K-related, we'll be working closely with our public affairs people ... to deal with the press and media" on communicating the cause of the problem, said Rick Siegel, vice president of information technology operations at KeySpan.
In addition, KeySpan will have a year-2000 command center with communications links to state, county and city emergency management personnel, so it will be possible to coordinate the response to any outages.
Tencza cautioned companies to wait until they know all the facts before talking to the media. The mere mention of previous Y2K remediation work led reporters to conclude that Y2K was to blame for the welfare glitch.
Developing a communications plan is a central part of Staten Island University Hospital's year 2000 contingency planning, said Rick Carney, CIO at the New York hospital. "We don't want to have the public react to a false situation," said Carney, who added that the hospital is still in the process of determining who in the hospital will be communicating its Y2K status to the public early next year.
But many companies aren't heeding advice to be prepared. Bill Patterson, president of Reputation Management Associates in Columbus, Ohio, said he has talked to "dozens and dozens" of companies, and not a single one had any interest in a public affairs contingency plan for Y2K glitches. Executives need to ask themselves if they will "be able to react instantaneously to any problem" and communicate with all of the company's audiences, Patterson said.
"I gave up trying to convince them," he said. "We will see who's right."
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