What the ABS can learn about online humility

Last night's #Censusfail debacle provided many lessons for organisations in how to manage large scale online events, says Paul Wallbank, not the least of which is to never promise what you can't deliver.

There’s a reason why airlines don’t make marketing claims about safety and that’s a lesson the Australian Bureau of Statistics has probably learned after last night’s Census embarrassment.
Over the past two months the ABS had been fighting widespread claims the Census data being retaining created security concerns and moving the nationwide survey online risked an ‘internet meltdown’ on the night.Paul Wallbank
In response, the agency and the Federal Government ran aggressive and at times, haughty, communications campaigns dismissing privacy concerns through both traditional and social media services.

As it turned out, reliability of the site on the night turned out to be the big communications challenge for the ABS because it turned out it wasn’t particularly well prepared as hubris and overconfidence took over from reality and caution.

The ABS told Fairfax last week it was confident there would not be an internet meltdown. When asked about the ability of the online Census database to cope with such high traffic numbers, an ABS spokesman said online could handle “1,000,000 form submissions every hour. That’s twice the capacity we expect to need.”

Catering for a million submissions an hour capacity wasn’t enough and the ABS’ communications team was caught unprepared with its responses as people complained on Twitter about the website being unavailable, and for responses being a template “online form and website are operating smoothly as expected. Please try again.

ABS censusfail

Adding insult to injury was the ABS’ Twitter account auto-tweeting responses which encouraged people to a site that was clearly down. The auto-response was mercifully put down late in the evening after the agency admitted defeat and stated the site wouldn’t be back online that night.

This morning the chief statistician was blaming a denial of service attack, as he told ABC Radio’s AM program, “at this stage the information that we’ve received is that it came from an international source but we don’t know any more… The Australian Signals Directorate is investigating these issues.”

Sadly, that response isn’t going to help David Kalisch’s credibility as the ‘denial of service attack’ is the cyber equivalent of ‘the dog ate my homework’ with such an attack on a high-profile website like the Census almost a given in today’s online world.

To compound the problems of Mr Kalisch and his organisation, referring to denial of service attacks as ‘hacking’ is only going to further irritate the technologists and security professionals whose concerns about the census have been fobbed off by the ABS and government for months.census campaign bwm dentsu

It’s hard also not to get the feeling the ABS was genuinely unprepared for things going wrong. As one seasoned public relations and corporation communications veteran said late last night, “feeling for the PR team, which will be pushed no doubt to the front of the telephone queue, having spent a number of years saying something along the lines of “what’s the plan if it doesn’t work?”

No doubt there were some inside the ABS’s communications team who asked that question, and it seems likely they were fobbed off with the same haughtiness with which the organisation’s management dismissed its external critics.

For the communications folk looking at the ruins of the ABS’s credibility this morning, the lessons are clear – social media auto-responders are necessary when there’s expected to be a high level of traffic but need to be turned off at the first sign of trouble. Of course that assumes the comms people will be told by operations when there is a problem.

Equally, all hands in the communications team need to be on deck and briefed fully about an event’s status. If websites are down, queues are long or call centres collapsing under the weight of traffic, then that has to be allowed for in the live updates.

The big lesson, though, is about hubris – both the ABS’s management and the government dismissed its critics and other industry experts who raised valid concerns about the reliability of the service. Today both look foolish and those security claims will now be subject of even more scrutiny.

Probably the greatest lesson from last night’s #Censusfail is to engage with the community earlier and not be so dammed arrogant to publicly dismiss the views of informed critics. Sadly, though, arrogant management will always trump the best efforts of any good PR team or communications strategy.

Paul Wallbank is a freelance writer and the publisher of Networked Globe


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