12 Aug 2016
PR Lessons from Census Fail

How To Turn #CensusFail Into #CensusYay!

Too soon? We know Census 2016 is still a disaster in progress, but we wouldn’t be comms people worth a darn if we didn’t take the role of armchair critics when the Federal Government stuffs up epically.

The first step in managing any disaster is to realise it’s actually happening. There are a few small, yet tell-tale indicators you’re having one:

  1. Your own hashtag with “FAIL” on the end. It’s never a good sign, particularly when it predates your disaster. This is when PR people start breathing into paper bags.
  2. That hashtag is on a hoodie
  3. The disaster makes global headlines.
  4. A “very angry” Prime Minister promises “serious consequences.”

Hindsight is a wonderful thing (or a nasty old biddy if you’re the one affected), so here is a list of things we would have done differently before and after the August 9 debacle.


    • Tell a Story. The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) missed a prime opportunity to explain that the Census guides planning and gives future generations an insight into the past. Only at the very last question (yes, I was one of the lucky 37 Australians able to do it online), which asked for my personal information to be held by the National Archives and released in 99 years, did I remember its real purpose. Starting with a clear, direct story gives the market something to think about, look forward to and understand. They also won’t fill the void left by your silence. Thankfully, all the newborn babies knew they needed to fill out the Census, so that’s one key demographic covered.
    • Have a Crisis Plan. This may seem like a no-brainer, but here we are. Make sure the crisis plan is communicated to the relevant people beforehand and when a crisis looks like it’s happening, implement it. When you’re dealing THE ENTIRE POPULATION, it’s going to have a far-reaching ripple effect. Australians love the opportunity to stick it to the Government, so if they smell smoke, the fire will be big. Don’t underestimate the ability of the public to probe and ask questions. Plan for things to go wrong. Assess the risks. Have a strategy and make it a good one because if you stuff up it won’t be quickly forgotten.
    • Investing in Reasonable Publicity Efforts and Advertising When your target audience is THE ENTIRE POPULATION, it’s worth explaining clearly what’s expected of them. Giving people information does wonders for their comfort levels and sets up the story. There simply wasn’t enough public information and it would have prevented questions like, “Can I do it earlier/later?” “Will I get fined?” “Do I have to do it online?” and “How safe will my information be?”
    • Be honest, discuss realities. When people have expressed concerns about the privacy of their information, it’s not the wisest strategy to boast about how amazingly secure the site is. Likewise, when people question the site’s ability to handle the massive influx of log-ins all at the same time, smiling and assuring us the system passed tests “with flying colours” is not be the best approach. We can see through the BS. Using absolutes and patronising THE ENTIRE POPULATION is never a good idea because you’ve been kind enough to draw a giant target for people to aim for.
    • Consider The Best Way to Communicate Sensitive Information. Sending unique login codes via Australia Post in envelopes addressed, “To the Householder,” could do with some rethinking. My 10-year old daughter even questioned it after she found me trawling through the recycling bin for our letter. Thankfully I found it and didn’t have to call the hotline which was permanently experiencing “higher than usual call volume.” I won’t address the need for adequate call centre staffing since it’s not strictly a comms issue, but did I mention THE ENTIRE POPULATION trying to log in after dinner?


    • Never Forget the First Rule Of A Crisis: It Can Always Get Worse. Maintain your crisis plan. Keep your messages clear. Keep breathing into the paper bag.
    • Apologise, Quickly. It’s pretty simple: admit the mistake or problem. “We stuffed up and we’re sorry, but here’s what we’re going to do to sort out the problem…” is a good start. Since this affects THE ENTIRE POPULATION, saying something worthwhile would help slow the growing tidal wave of negative sentiment and speculation.
    • Get the story straight and make sure everyone is communicating the same key messages. As I write this two days later, it’s still not clear what happened. Some say DDoS attacks, some say load balancing failure, an old router couldn’t take the heat, poor planning, bad software, someone plugged in the hairdryer at the wrong time… who knows? While this is important to understand, it’s not the most critical detail because it doesn’t address the important points: Is our private information safe? If I haven’t yet completed the Census, when can I? Why aren’t you telling us anything? There’s an information vacuum, so the news outlets and the public are filling it. There are many examples of failure due to lack of communication after a crisis and the results are never pretty.
    • Replicate Across All Platforms – The message needs to go out in print, verbally, online and anywhere else. It was pretty obvious the website had fallen over and people were upset, but scheduled tweets were still posting about how exciting it was to be an Australian on Census night.
    • Listen to people. When everything has begun to fall down in a screaming heap, replying to social media complaints with the key message, “It’s a problem at your end, not ours,” is perhaps a strategy that should be reconsidered for something a little more helpful and proactive. Not only does this make the ABS look like an organisation with its head in the sand, it could have prevented people from continuing increasingly frustrated log on attempts.

Got any more advice? Let us know below.

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