Optus out(r)age: a communication company that needs to work on its communication

On Wednesday morning, Australians across the country found themselves plunged into a communications darkness thanks to Optus’ network failure.

But beyond the failure to provide more than 10 million people with the ability to communicate, Optus’ communication proved a shocking failure. Phoebe Netto, founder of Pure Public Relations, expounds on how Optus ghosted an entire nation.

One of the rules of crisis management is to communicate quickly, and often: even if you don’t have new information, causes, solutions, or estimated timeframes. Silence is not an option.

For hours, Optus ghosted the nation – not even communicating with the Minister for Communications. Their only message was a single tweet that lacked sufficient information and had the comments turned off.

I had hoped that having a former premier who once gave daily press conferences would help them understand the need to proactively communicate with customers via the media – especially since their customers wouldn’t have been able to receive texts or emails from them! But no.

The void created by their silence was filled with speculation and as many negative impact stories as the media could find. Through our need for information, it fell to the Minister for Communication to front interviews and provide media with content.

Optus should have held a brief press conference. Even though the information could have been delivered in written talking points, which they ended up doing via WhatsApp to ABC Radio hours later, a press conference brings reassurance that can only come when a leader delivers the information directly to camera and is willing to answer (some) questions.

It gives the perception of some accountability, and the opportunity to deliver hard news with compassion that cannot otherwise be conveyed. And really, these are the elements of any good issues management communication.

Instead, that job fell to the Minister for Communication who held a press conference.

Almost equal to the frustration of not having phone and/or internet access, has been the frustration of a lack of information and no indication of when information will be provided. If Optus had proactively promised to give updates on its website and social media channels every 15 minutes, it would have gained more control of the story and reduced customer frustration.

Even if an update is to say that they are still working on it and that they don’t know when it will be resolved – that is still a helpful update, compared to the frustration of people going searching for information and realising they’ve been ghosted by the service provider that they give money to every month.

If you have small children, you might be familiar with this line sung by Daniel Tiger: “Saying ‘I’m sorry’ is the first step, then ‘how can I help?’” Optus should have anticipated questions and needs and proactively addressed them. For example, how will Optus let people know when their services are restored? Will you be providing more information at some point? Are there any workarounds that people can use? Will there be information forthcoming about compensation?

But yet again, it fell to the Minister for Communication to suggest that businesses keep records of receipts and other evidence of a loss of income due to the outage, and also fell to her to be the first to give any update on how to call emergency services.

When you fail to deliver all you promised, an apology is not enough. Once we finish asking Optus how this happened, the next question will be about compensation for economic impact as well as some sort of amends for the disruption. They better have an answer ready – and if they are smart, they will share this proactively – before it looks like they are responding to pressure, rather than being motivated by care for customers.

So far, they are off to a bad start with their post-outage communications, diminishing the significance of the failure. Optus chief executive Kelly Bayer Rosmarin (pictured above) has said: “Nobody works harder to make sure our customers are looked after and trusted. All telcos occasionally have outages, and we hope our customers will understand how hard we’ve been working to restore services as a priority.” All telcos might occasionally have outages – but not nationwide blackouts that last for more than nine hours.

She also used the time to give this defensive comment: “I believe at Optus we are a customer champion, and we go to great lengths to give our customers great value for money, excellent service and coverage and unique features they can’t get anywhere else”.

Now is not the time to be promoting or defending yourself – it’s time to talk about your customers and to provide reassurance. This tone-deaf comment will just fan the flame of outage outrage. Great value for money for a failed service? Excellent service by ghosting? Excellent coverage that doesn’t exist? Unique features? I suppose an outage of this magnitude is unique. But so is a cyber hack.

This communications provider needs a lot of work on their communications.

Phoebe Netto is the founder of Pure Public Relations, a PR firm that offers media relations, issues management and communication services.



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