Could a different communications message have made a difference?

By Alun Probert

August 11, 2016

After a tetchy few weeks in the run up to the Census, the first I was aware of the communications drama unfolding at the ABS was a series of tweets yesterday morning describing graphically how a number of senior bureaucrats and pollies were responding to what had clearly been a major systems failure on the Census website.

The various conversations seemed to be lurching all over the place. Was it an attack or not? Was data lost? Whose fault was it? The various spokespeople seemed to have differing views about the key message. As the drama unfolded, someone published the costs of the project on social media, creating another mini firestorm

Meanwhile, the communications message was getting more and more garbled. We were given some insight about denial of service attacks (“like a truck parked across your driveway” apparently) and that such an attack was “always likely” and we heard language that included phrases like “an attempt to frustrate data collection” and that the problem was a “malicious attack” and a “false positive”.

As we all became experts in hacking (or whatever this was), we learned that the system has been tested to be capable of handling a million submissions per hour. Some of us privately wondered whether that would be enough to cope with the early evening rush as people got home from work and settled down to fill in the online forms.

And things became so tense that finally the PM and Treasurer hosted a press conference which referenced IBM and the Australian Signals Directorate. A difficult day indeed.

Where was the trusted spokesperson?

So what can we learn? Hindsight is a gift to people commenting after the event, but a review of events does raise a question about the communications strategy.

We now know that at 7.45pm on the night of the Census, a decision was taken to close down the website. It appears that the first public announcement was a tweet from Census Australia some three hours later saying that the system was down and would not be restored that night. Knowing that meanwhile the ads were still running and public were getting increasingly frustrated, it’s the (lack of) activities in those three vital hours that are most instructive in terms of learning and moving on.

There should have been a public message broadcast on national media as soon as possible following the decision to shut down the server. It should have come from a senior, well known and trusted spokesperson, not through a corporate social media account.

If the delay in making that announcement was based on the fear of likely public and media reaction, the alternative strategy of having multiple spokespeople with differing explanations appearing randomly across the media the next morning plainly didn’t work.

In damage limitation mode, the first communications priority on the night of the Census should have been to make that clear announcement about the website being down. This was a live issue affecting all Australians.

The second priority should have been to pull all the ads still running on TV and digital media, with the third being to unite all communications through one senior communications team with total control of all messaging.

Little things count with users

In tactical terms, the wording of the announcement should have been designed to save people wasting their time logging on and (continuing to overload the servers) and to provide them with an alternative date for completing the Census, accompanied by a sincere and personal apology from a senior statesman.

I’m pretty sure that most people would have shrugged their shoulders, understood and got on with their lives. At the very least, many thousands of people would have been saved a wasted trip to a website that had already been shut down. Ahh… hindsight…

Sometimes, even in the heat of politics, honesty is just the best policy.

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