‘Optus didn’t just fail to control the narrative, they ignored it completely’: The outage aftermath

Times of crisis tend to bring us together. Whether it’s a war, a pandemic, or the collapse of the communications system we rely upon — quite literally, to stay alive, in many cases — a common enemy is a bonding agent.

However, when 10 million Australians woke up yesterday morning and found they had no phone or internet service, it was less crisis, and more chaos. But we did have a common enemy – and we’ve been here before, haven’t we?

Put simply: Optus dropped the ball. Again. They waited half a day to properly acknowledge the massive outage issue, and when they did, CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin was curt and light on details and the government has now launched a federal investigation into the matter. So, what should she have done?

Peter Wilkinson is a crisis PR expert, and founder and chair of Wilkinson Butler. He doesn’t mince words when asked how Optus should have responded.

“Most comms is simple and common sense,” Wilkinson tells Mumbrella.

“All Kelly Bayer Rosmarin had to do was pretend she was talking to each of us, one on one, in our homes or offices. Empathy goes a long way. For instance, would you ever say to your partner that it’s too complicated to explain? Never. It’s condescending. So, what inspired her to say that!?”

The irony of a communications provider not being able to clearly communicate the issue compounded the issue. In a world of constant weather and celebrity updates, to not be providing regular updates is a breach in itself.

“Learn from the COVID era – regular updates inspire trust, even with bad news: An update every half hour starting at 5am, even with little or no information” Wilkinson said.

“Besides the inevitable tech talk, this would include an apology, a commitment to get it fixed, to investigate why it happened and make that investigation public, and a commitment that once this is sorted it will never happen again.

“What about some live crosses to the coal face, if one exists, even if it’s tech wizards in front of computer screens frantically hammering keyboards? Let us feel and see the pressure that people are under to fix this.”

Adding to the disconnect between the Optus CEO and the rest of the public was a disastrously timed photo shoot at Bayer Rosmarin’s $15 million Vaucluse mansion, in which expensive rugs and furniture were imported, and stylists were employed, while 10 million Australians wondered why they couldn’t use their phones or pay for their breakfast.

“The photo shoot at the house should have been cancelled,” Wilkinson said.

“It should never have been agreed to. What were they thinking to display such wealth in an era when customers are being forced to shop for food specials and skimp on Christmas to save a few dollars. Did the Alan Joyce debacle teach them nothing?”

Luke Holland is head of strategic communications at Think HQ. Holland points out that  “it’s always easy to be wise after the fact – hindsight can make crisis comms experts of us all”, but even this gracious stance cannot smooth over Optus’s actions.

“It’s near impossible to find much to recommend in the public response from Optus to yesterday’s nationwide service outage,” he conceded.

“Their response was sluggish, with little or no news from Optus until mid-morning. Optus didn’t just fail to control the narrative, they ignored it completely – just a block banner notice on their website, initially with no click through or live updates. The void was filled with countless live blogs and social media speculation, all without coherent update or apology from Optus.”

Holland feels Optus needs a “swift morning round of radio, with an unqualified apology, a sincere acknowledgement of the huge impact on customers many of whom are doing out tough right now”, on top an “absolute commitment to fix the problem as quickly as possible.” And, of course, correct compensation.

“Instead, we got Kelly Bayer Rosmarin speaking mid-afternoon, with no real contrition,” Holland points out.

“Talk of ‘a number of paths to restoration’ sounded distant, while references to ‘usually excellent’ service amidst half apologies were just jarring. By then, social media was awash with photos of people queuing past Vodafone and Telstra stores. The one saving grace for Optus? Most of their customers didn’t see any of this, as… they still had no service.”

Considering the mass data breach that occurred late last year, it’s not as if this was unprecedented, either.

“After last year’s catastrophic data leak, you would think that the senior team at Optus would be hyper aware of the optics at play – but apparently not,” Holland continues.

Wilkinson agrees they should have been more prepared.

“The Optus folks had plenty of time to prepare for this after the cyber breach,” he said.

“Rehearse and rehearse. This seems to be a case of the board and execs failing to do the obvious.”


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