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Whistling for good

As communications experts working at the heart of our respective industries, it’s only natural that we uncover the occasional nugget of negative information about the businesses operating in our markets.

More often than not, we take the gentleman’s prerogative and quietly keep the scoop under our hats rather than spill the beans to the media. Succeeding in business after all, is tough enough, and encouraging what amounts to the equivalent of a corporate Cold War might work for us one day, but it’s a high risk strategy that’s likely to come back to bite us the next.

But for some B2B marketers, blowing the whistle on malpractice in related business can be an necessary evil: While all is fair in love and war, ignoring marketing claims that mislead or are simply untrue taints the landscape for all of us and, if left unchecked, these claims could do irreparable damage to the industries we operate in.

The problem for most businesses is the “tell-tale factor”: Given that the majority of malpractice will, in the first instance, be identified by a direct competitor, the accusation of sour grapes is always likely to be the first rebuttal of the business (or businesses) under attack. Virgin media, for instance, has taken great care in recent months to assist the industry wide whistleblowing on broadband providers claiming higher speed connections than those routinely experienced by the customers using their services. Unlike the vast majority of providers, Virgin’s broadband service is delivered over digital cable rather than the typically inferior ADSL network that supports almost every other provider in the country. But while Virgin’s efforts to lift the lid on this apparent mis-selling in the marketplace have successfully boosted the cable company’s reputation as the UK’s most reliable and fastest broadband company (as validated by consumer site Broadband Choice), rebuttals have come fast and furious: Virgin is simply sour because its cable TV service will never be able to offer the range and choice available on alternative satellite services like Sky, argue some media watchers, while others make the point that Virgin’s new focus on delivery speed kick- started just after BT’s claim that the telecom giant had overtaken Virgin as the UK’s largest broadband provider.

What’s the motivation?

Whether it’s governments or big corporates, the whistleblowing culture that’s emerged in today’s media environment is rooted in the “conscious” of executives exposed to the dark underbelly of policy or practices undertaken within their organisation or industry. Genuine whistleblower legends come in the form of people like Jeffrey Wigand, the employee at American Tobacco Company Brown & Williamson, who revealed that company executives knew cigarettes were addictive, or Worldcom’s Cynthia Cooper, the employee that exposed the communication giant’s financial scandal. In the age of spin and a demanding 24/7 news agenda, the term has been watered down and cheapened. Today anyone can whistleblow, the real problem is weighing up the pros and cons of spilling the beans.

When to blow the whistle and how to do it?

Since whistleblowing is the unauthorised disclosure of illegal or unethical conduct, any marketing professional considering the tactic needs to think long and hard before embarking on the process.

While discrediting a rival business may hold obvious short term appeal, the negative publicity generated can quickly ricochet to deliver equal or even more serious damage to the messenger if the claims of misconduct turn out to be misinterpreted, not in the public interest or, ultimately, untrue.

First and foremost, it’s important to think wider than the short term communications gains that could result from your actions: Do you believe that the activity you’re about to uncover is genuinely illegal or unethical; Is the wider industry (or its customers) suffering because this activity is going on; and, even if the claim has real weight, is your business best placed to blow the whistle or should you be working with a wider group of influencers to highlight the malpractice?

If the criteria above is fulfilled you’re looking at something much more than a simple communications or guerrilla marketing campaign. You’ll need the support of the top directors in your organisation and you’ll need these directors to help create the industry wide pressure group of talent capable of fuelling the issue and developing cross industry consensus.

Note the example of budget carrier Ryanair and the British Airways price fixing allegations that broke into the press last year (BA, allegedly, tried to forewarn Virgin Atlantic about its anticipated fuel surcharges. Because tipping off a competitor about price rises is illegal, Virgin Atlantic alerted the Office of Fair Trading).

As one of the major players in European aviation, Ryanair may well have been expertly placed to leak the price fixing rumour out months before it became public – but the operation’s communications experts took a far more sophisticated approach. First off, Ryanair issued a public statement guaranteeing no fuel surcharges ever. While the announcement did not attack or name any particular competitor, the fuel surcharge issue was placed firmly on the agenda and the implication was that pricing policy elsewhere in the industry was on the rise.

Secondly the airline seeded the industry’s established pressure groups with hard hitting allegations that could not be ignored. Before long, consumer associations, the Office of Fair Trading and the European Commission’s justice department were all investigating the fuel surcharges policy being introduced at what Ryanair started to call “Europe’s high fair carriers”.

Having ignited the fuse, Ryanair was able to sit back and watch as objective third parties dug up the dirt and ultimately uncovered the price fixing allegations.

While no other sources other than internal Virgin Atlantic employees were ever identified as whistleblowers in the alleged price fixing scam, it was Ryanair’s quick fire response to the debacle that made positive news for the discount operator. As “high fair carriers” hung their heads in shame. Ryanair spokesperson Peter Sherrard took the opportunity to reiterate the “no fuel surcharges ever” guarantee, saying it was “about time that British Airways’ rapacious fuel surcharges were investigated. It is ridiculous that as the price of oil has doubled, British Airways has increased its fuel surcharge 14-fold”.

In short, while discount airlines like Ryanair (and others) may not have pulled the trigger, their consistent lobbying and allegations that the big players were bumping up the fuel surcharge unnecessarily on transatlantic flights, while undercharging on short-haul flights to compete with budget carriers, had arguably fuelled discontent within the industry to motivate its watchers.

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