The Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) recently stated that it planned to actively prosecute Australians who had failed to complete their census within the allotted timeframe. Apparently there are up to one million Australians facing a fine for an incomplete census! There are questions that have to remain: who is guiding their communications and can we crowdfund them a holiday? They sure do need one!

So let’s go back a bit and see how all of this unfolded. Way back on August 9, the ABS told every Aussie over 18 to use their password supplied to them in the mail and log on to the website during the evening to fill in their census. However, millions of Australians were not so fortunate and predictably, as many of them logged on to the site at once during the course of that evening, it crashed. Meaning many Australians could not complete their census as they intended to do.

What happened next from a communications perspective was bewildering at best. The site stayed closed, the ABS made claims about everything from a denial of service attack (where malicious attacks occur to interrupt web traffic) to flaws in the approach from their IT vendor, yet strangely no Plan B for their customers, i.e. us, and also few signs of an apology.

What has compounded and already disastrous impact on the ABS brand and critically damaged the credibility of the Census is the systemic failure of the management of the ABS to adopt an intelligent communications strategy. Therefore those in charge of communications must be spending most mornings being coaxed out of bed with kind words and a strong cup of tea as a bare minimum, because it can’t be much fun.

So putting aside what was clearly inadequate planning from a technical perspective what could have been differently from a communications or an issues management perspective?

  1. Say sorry. If the ABS staff said sorry in the first 24 hours they didn’t say it enough because the message wasn’t heard. There was much speculation about how it happened or why it happened, but clearly not enough saying sorry because it did happen. Work out who stuffed up in the background, but the first thing you say is sorry and you say it a lot!
  2. For crying out loud have a Plan B, or at least look like you have one. Having worked in IT for every major deployment I have worked on there is a communications plan for if it goes awry. Where was it? The ABS went quiet and where there is quiet, others will fill the void.
  3. Stick to your lines. Have you said sorry yet? Say it again. It needed to be the first message every single time and it wasn’t. Instead the narrative went on to speculate who was to blame.
  4. Don’t compound the error by reverting to the original process later. If everything had gone smoothly in the deployment the ABS could go hard on those who have not completed their forms as yet. But even 6 weeks later some people cannot complete their forms as yet, so the stick is premature to say the least.
  5. Own the problem. Get on the front foot early, have a single or perhaps two spokespeople (one can get fatigued if the issue is as big as this one) to deliver consistent messaging and never, ever, blame anybody else until definitively know what happened. There is now a real risk that the ABS brand is so damaged that the quality of the data itself will be brought into constant question.
  6. Ensure that your project/corporate objectives are driving your communications strategy and execution. This gives communications practitioners the ability to make the tough calls in the moment as you know that if a task is not meeting those objectives you cease it immediately. The ABS still appeared to be running through its communication tactics without any link to a larger strategy, making it appear unable to adapt to the developing situation as it unfolded.

Now having known plenty of senior and talented communications people in government over the years, I’m pretty sure that the advice that was given to the ABS executive was similar to the above. However, it was clearly not followed and the ABS now finds itself in the midst of a real communications disaster.