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Census campaign ‘made me cringe’ says former government statistics chief

The former top statistician for the Australian Government has admitted the ad campaign for this year’s Census made him “cringe” and “was not up to par”.

census campaign bwm dentsu official hom pageBill McLennan, who left from the Australian Bureau of Statistics in 2000, told the Senate inquiry into what caused this year’s systems meltdown that the publicity campaign around it had not managed to persuade people it was safe to hand over personal data online.

This year’s Census on August 9 was beset by a technical meltdown which stopped the majority of people from completing the online forms, leading to the inquiry.

McLennan told the inquiry: “The public relations exercise in respect to the Census was, shall we say, not up to par. Anyone who saw the skit they put on TV would, as I did, cringe when they saw it.

“You really can’t collect a big Census properly if you don’t spend some money – and a significant amount of money – on PR until you get your message across.”

BWM Dentsu was behind the advertising campaign whilst Fenton Communications from Melbourne was the PR agency awarded the contract.

The ad campaign for the event went live in July playing on the idea of it being a social event and asking everyone to “pause and play a role in shaping the future” of Australia’s services and infrastructure.

It used a giant pause button sign and frozen action to illustrate the point.

According to the AusTender website, Fenton Communications was paid $395,000 – up from an initial $225,000 – to create and implement a media and PR strategy for the Census.

BWM Dentsu was paid $2.8m to create the ad campaign.

While the ABS paid $422,000 to advertise for workers to help with the Census it is unclear exactly how much it was spent on media for the awareness campaign.

Communications from the night released after a Freedom of Information request reveal the government had no crisis communications plan in place to deal with the problems, and took several hours to get advertising pulled from digital and traditional media.

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