By Chris Gilmour

Tech PR is usually about talking up a product – but O2 had to dig deep into their crisis communications planning last week after a system failure left 25 million of us without calls, texts, emails or web access.

I can testify that a weekday without the kind of technology that makes the working week work was every bit as difficult as you’d think it would be.

The trials and tribulations of finding public WiFi and “landline telephones” ­– as I believe they are called – aside, I’ve got to say I was quite impressed by O2’s response to this problem.

And, considering the complexity of the telecoms network they run, it’s remarkable that there has never been a service wipe-out on this scale before. Which is probably the reason O2’s crisis PR team didn’t lose their heads – they knew this day would come.

Technology does and will go wrong. People working in tech PR and tech marketing don’t like to admit this, but sometimes circumstances force it out of them... those circumstances being a crisis management situation.

So what was the secret of O2’s tech PR success in the face of this crisis? Quite simply, the company eliminated the tech from its response.

Find the TECH PR problem quickly

The first thing the team there set out to achieve was identifying the problem quickly. This is the basis of any crisis response … you have to know your facts before you act. Knowing it would take some time to resolve – and that the problem was down to its technology partner Ericsson – O2 apologised to customers and pointed the finger of blame, saying only that an issue had been identified.

The brand steered clear of technological gobbledygook, and there was an almost audible sigh of relief from journalists UK-wide as they realised they would not have to turn geek speak it into plain English for the rest of us.

Ericsson, to its credit, held its hands up and struck the same apologetic tone.

O2 made it clear there would be compensation in the form of credits to the millions of customers affected, and kept its apologetic tone on social media, where people were understandably a little annoyed about the tech they rely upon leaving them cut off.

Both companies were helped out in this regard by industry insiders, who pointed out to the media that this kind of thing really should happen more often and it was a testament to the resilience of UK mobile providers’ infrastructure that it doesn’t.

Of course, there were complaints on social media that O2 was prioritising calls over its 3G and 4G services. Clearly from people who don’t realise you can’t tweet for an ambulance.

Reliant on our tech

The web is so convenient for so much of what we do these days that losing it – even for a few hours – can seem like the beginning of the end times. If you can’t check your Insta feed on the bus, you’re only 30 minutes away from a zombie apocalypse.

We’re reliant on our tech… it’s a life-support system for doing business, and keeps social relationships alive in a busy world. But that break from emails reminded me that it’s good to talk – just as the old BT advert said.

And it’s in their talking to customers that I think O2 excelled. They never lost sight of the fact the people would be disappointed, upset and put out and maintained a consistency of messaging. They remedied the technical situation and offered a remedy for the customers they failed briefly (and less than a day without calls is a brief time, no matter how short the news cycle has made our attentions).

I don’t think O2 could have handled this tech PR crisis any better than they did – and I was one of the people on the receiving end of it.

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