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Could the passport office crisis happen again this summer?

HM Passport Office, following the well-publicised backlog disaster of summer 2015, asked Cloud Media Insight to analyse the social media activity which fuelled the crisis.

Our report shows that monitoring the chatter on Twitter and other social media platforms buys vital time by giving early warning of a fast approaching crisis.

Background

In 2013, the Passport Office estimated that applications would rise due to overseas embassies shutting their passport desks and transferring operations to the UK.

However, what they didn’t expect was the meteoric rise that came in the summer of 2014. Although applications generally always rise in the summer months with people are preparing for holidays, in June 2014 there were over 490,000 applications in progress – an increase of almost 350,000 compared with the same time in 2013.

This led to staff strikes as passport office workers struggled to deal with the backlog and many UK holiday makers (who were unable to leave the country) expressing their anger and disappointment on social media.

Unsurprisingly, the media jumped on the story with headlines such as ‘Passport renewal delays causing expat headaches’ and ‘Six MONTHS to wait for a new passport: Furious families reveal how their holidays have been ruined by massive backlog…’

What followed was a prime example of how things can spiral out of control without effective crisis planning.

Our analysis

We created a graph that showed the buzz trends from January 2013 to July 2014. This showed that the number of people talking about passport applications increased sharply from April 2014 onwards. We pinpointed the four key dates that the media escalated the crisis: 7th May (press office started to field media enquiries), 24th May (feature on Good Morning), 2nd June (story in the Daily Mail) and 17th June (passport office CEO appears before Home Affairs Select Committee).

However, when we looked in more detail at the buzz during the critical time (April-July) we identified some suspicious qualitative activity which actually started in late April, around two weeks before the media interest began.

An early warning sign

By looking at various keyword mentions on social media platforms during the critical time, we found a number of comments from disgruntled holiday-goers which started as early as the 25th April. One of the earliest comments read: “they told me they received it on the 4th April but it wasn't looked at until the 22nd!! so upset as waiting for my husband’s renewal as well that hasn't come. Will we be going on our family holiday??? have no idea. they have had both applications for 3 weeks.” Others described how it was impossible to get through to anyone at the passport office by phone.

What’s clear is that if the passport office had been monitoring social media at the time, they would have detected the increased activity and first sprinkle of negative comments before the story went viral.

The two weeks between 25th April and 7th May (when the press office began receiving a high number of calls) could have proved a useful time to develop and put in place an effective contingency plan – briefing staff on what was likely to happen and how they should deal with media enquiries. Unfortunately the window of opportunity was lost and what followed was a barrage of negative coverage which went on for months to follow.

Social media monitoring

More often than not, a crisis develops when you are least expecting it and, if you are not prepared for this kind of eventuality, it can be extremely damaging for your business. Therefore, real-time social media monitoring can be an excellent tool for crisis management.

Many of our large business clients benefit from using both traditional and social media monitoring as a core part of their PR plan. We track conversations about their brand/s in social media and provide timely summaries of what’s being said about them across the media, enabling them to adjust their strategy and tactics month by month, or daily in a crisis. By gaining an insight into what is being said online, they are able to adapt to meet their customers’ needs and protect their company reputation.

For more information on the social media analysis and evaluation services we offer, please contact us.