New FOI documents reveal comms meltdown on night of #CensusFail

Emails between the Australian Bureau of Statistic’s Census team and its external partners paint a picture of a communications breakdown with no crisis plan, newly released correspondence reveals.

census campaign bwm dentsu

The documents, released following an application under the Freedom of Information Act, detail email communications between the team.

The emails show a day which began calmly dealing with last-minute campaign approvals. But by 10:00pm the Prime Minister’s Office was involved and Census night was officially in crisis.

While the Census website was confirmed as being out of action as early as 8:30pm, the ABS’s Twitter account was still automatically tweeting users towards the unresponsive site, because the Census team did not have access to all its communications tools, as the Twitter account was managed externally.

For much of the evening, Twitter users continued to point this out while, internally, the ABS team was powerless to halt their own tweets.

An email at 9:29pm said: “Hi [redacted] sorry I am sure you are across this but there seems to be an auto reply on the Census twitter handle that has just started telling everyone commenting to log-in now to do the Census.”

The response sent at 9:32pm read: “Hi we think it’s our social ad – we’ve asked it to be shutdown but we think some of it is taking a bit longer to stop being fed/pushed out. Does that make sense? We can’t suspend or turn it off ourselves – [redacted] have to do it.”

The presumably outsourced media agency involved has been redacted from the FOI information.

Earlier in the evening (7:58pm) staff were warned not to share any “proactive” messages and not to “push anything out on social yet until we get an update”.

By 10:08pm, staff knew the service would not be restored that night. However, it took until 11:08pm for a statement to be approved by the Minister’s office and issued across all channels.


There was back and forth between the teams, with the Census team told to hold off on posting on Twitter until the Minister had seen any statements from the ABS.

Earlier in the evening (9:22pm), the Census team had started the process to get social/digital paid media switched off.

“As just discussed I have spoken with [redacted] and can confirm as instructed by yourselves that all search activity is now turned off, the digital will be off within the next 20mins (none will be served) and we are working on turning off Twitter Moments,” an email stated.

A further email at 9:57pm read: “Have spoken with [redacted] (& as discussed with [redacted]) the latest is as follows: [redacted] have stopped all digital activity (display, online, video, search & social), that they control.

“Still being worked on are Twitter moments, all other Twitter activity has stopped but we do not have an eta as to when Moments will be pulled. Retweet to Remind has been turned off.

“[Redacted] are trying to reach someone at [redacted] to pulldown the [redacted] masthead. [redacted] also have not been able to get onto [redacted] or [redacted] yet and while they pulled the banners from [redacted], the background is still up. All of the links have been turned off though.”

By 10:00pm it was reaching a crisis point: “Can’t express the extreme urgency around this now. Prime Minister’s Office is now involved. Online form still unavailable, investigations ongoing, no timeframe for resolution.”

Six minutes later the response said: “Completely understand [redacted] and everyone is aware of the severity…”

Twitter Moments paid had been switched off at this point; however, according to the email, switching off trending was “taking a bit of time” and any above-the-line (ATL) was unable to be turned off.



The correspondence appears to suggest that staff at Twitter needed to be reached to get paid elements of the social media campaign turned off.

At 10:22pm, staff were directed to tell Twitter to stop all activity “on direction from Govt”.

The email said: “We need everything possible turned off and suspended ASAP – direct Twitter to do it now (on direction from Govt).

“[Redacted] – any advice on whether we can pull remaining advertising altogether/suspend for a period of time and what we need to do to activate that course of action.”

The response asked for an email instructing all activity to be paused, highlighting “that there would be charges from the media for cancelling at this stage”.

At 10:28pm, it was confirmed with Twitter that Trend was now down, Moments had been paused, as had Trend, and auto reply was switched off.

Twitter’s Promoted Trends allow advertising partners to promote an event-sensitive trend which will appear at the top of the trending topics list on Twitter while Twitter Moments are curated stories around a topic. On the ABS advertising campaign across traditional media, the team were told ads would run into the next morning.

“Just on all ATL I can confirm post speaking with [redacted] just now we can: Turn all TV off by 10:00am tomoz morn; Turn all radio off by 10:00am tomoz morn, Turn all digital OOH off by 9:00am tomoz morn; Turn all cinema off by end of tomoz. *There will be cost implications for this.

“We are on standby here in office and will await to be instructed what else you require use to do tonight post speaking with Prime Minister’s office now.”


At 11:22pm an email read: “Just a courtesy note to let you know we’ve instructed [redacted] to suspend all Census campaign acivity tonight/tom due to outage of our online form.

“We’ve put this message out tonight across all channels. [Redacted] and all our other partners are aware. [Redacted] have been great and responsive in helping us with this. We will keep everyone updated.

The ABS and Census websites are unavailable. The service won’t be restored tonight. We will update you in the morning. We apologise for the inconvenience.

There will be no fines for completing the Census after August 9. There’s still plenty of time to complete the Census. Thanks for your patience.”

Census community managers were instructed to stand down at 11:12pm with an external party telling the Census team at 11:15pm that they were “on hold to support you guys over the next few days and will follow your lead and plan of action”.

Earlier ehe emails indicate that problems for the service had begun early, with the team sharing screenshots as early as 11:54am that day. They suggest that even as the ABS was publicly claiming to be unaware of any problems, this was not true.


At around lunch-time, staff were provided with messaging to use if they “starting getting/seeing public enquiries about problems accessing or using the online form”.

It also provided messaging of the need to “publicly respond to reports of denial of service attacks”.

The exact messaging was redacted; however, it suggests there was no plan for this prior to the day of the Census. After the event, the ABS’s attempts to blame the problems on denial of service attacks were widely derided.

Census staff were also asked to “please monitor media, CIS, social for any activity that might alert us to any unusual activity on online form, including anyone claiming to launch an attack or successfully attacking”.

By 2:30pm the issues were starting to pile up, with calls and social showing “a small volume (could grow) of people experiencing the following issues: Can’t submit; Fail to save; Kicking out and submission and going to back start; Hitting submit – waiting for it submit”.

The documents reveal that there was never a pre-prepared response to problems, with an email sent at 5:40pm providing social media responses to complaints.


At 6:28pm another email with responses was sent out:


The crowd funding campaign to raise $1,020 to pay the FOI fee was organised by William Summers on the Chuffed platform. Mumbrella was among the contributors to the crowd-funding campaign.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing