An apology shouldn’t include an excuse

Did any of you folks hear about the Optus outage this week?

One woman who called into ABC Radio on Wednesday morning heard about it from her cat, who missed his 6.10am breakfast, usually delivered via a Wi-Fi feeder, and came in to claw his frustration all over her arms.

Some found out about it when they went to pay for their morning coffee and realised they couldn’t access their tap-and-go payment app. Others could access tap-and-go fine, but went to a cafe who couldn’t accept card payments.

Some may have realised when they tried to call triple-zero from their landlines and couldn’t, which is a particularly terrible time to realise your phone isn’t working.

You probably didn’t hear about the outage from Optus though, who were deafening with their radio silence.


A short message appeared on Twitter at 6:47am, close to three hours after the outage started, opening with, “we’re aware of an issue impacting Optus mobile and nbn services and are working to restore services as quickly as possible”, which already rings with the tone of someone who wants you to stop nagging them already.

“We encourage any customers who need to contact emergency services to use a mobile line to call 000,” Optus tweeted out at 10.17am, confirming that emergency calls don’t work from landlines.

Later it became evident that even mobiles couldn’t dial triple-zero. “If Optus customers need to call emergency services, we suggest finding a family member or neighbour with an alternative device,” as if time isn’t of the essence when needing to call emergency service. “We suggest” – just tossed off casually, as if telling someone to fill up the ice-cube trays vertically to avoid splashing (this is a free life hack).

By late morning, close to seven hours after the outage began, Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin hopped on her trusty, operational WhatsApp account and dialled into the ABC and 2GB, where she admitted “we don’t have line of sight into the root cause” while stridently insisting it couldn’t possibly be a cyberhack.

“Our systems are actually very stable, we provide great coverage to our customers, this is a very rare occurrence,” she countered, with the assumption that a wave of amnesia had swept across our fair land.

Later, speaking to the AFR, she dismissed the public’s wish for information by saying, “there is no soundbite that is going to do it justice”, which is only patronising if you let it be.

We were told it was a “​​technical network fault”, and that her failure to communicate wasn’t a glaring problem because “there wasn’t more information to provide”.

A press conference followed the WhatsApp chats, where she was defensive and curt, arguing with journalists who said there was no message on the website by pointing out a tiny pop-up bar at the top of the page, about 1/40th of the size of the ad imploring you to buy the latest Samsung S23 phone. When she directed customers to said website for rolling updates, only to have it pointed out that internet access is a vital element of website access, she garbled some nonsense about communities having available Wi-Fi.

At 12.55pm another Twitter update tersely said, “We reiterate our apology to customers for the nationwide service outage,” which is basically saying, ‘we’ve already apologised for this, move on!’

By the way, while this was going on, what else was occupying Bayer Rosmarin’s day?

No doubt, as CEO, she was in the coal face, coordinating efforts, working with technicians to find out the root case of the outage, rallying the troops for the second major national PR disaster in the last 15 months.

That’s what I would have assumed, and perhaps this is true.

Do you know what else was going on, though? An expensive photoshoot at her $15 million Vaucluse mansion, for which the Daily Mail reported “a fleet of vehicles brought in luxury items like throws, shrubbery and furniture”.

Why on earth wouldn’t you cancel this? As they say on Succession, the optics are terrible.

“They just hadn’t got round to photographing it yet and it was being done today,” explained Bayer Rosmarin’s husband to the Mail reporters lurking outside the mansion, as if there was no possible way an architectural photo spread involving imported wicker chairs and throw-rugs could be rescheduled. “It was just unfortunate timing”. Oops. LOLZ.

His take on the outage? “Unfortunately, that’s the problem with big organisations and modern technology.”

Pictured: modern technology

Full coverage was restored by 6:30pm on Wednesday night, over fourteen hours after the network collapsed. Yesterday, Optus dismissed talk of any financial compensation and instead offered free data to make up for the disaster.

Still on the defensive, Bayer Rosmarin told the Daily Telegraph that “refunding people for one day is probably less than $2” and repeated later that free data is of “much greater value” than money, which sounds suspiciously like the words of either a data-hungry chatbot speaking on behalf of the CEO – or someone with a $15 million Vaucluse mansion.

It also utterly misses the point.

The Optus response has echoes of QANTAS, who recently attempted to counter the ghost flights scandal by saying people who buy an airplane ticket don’t actually pay for a specific flight to a specific place at a specific time, but instead for a promise to “get customers on their way to their destination as close as possible to the flight time they book, either on their original or an alternative service at no additional cost.”

Optus have the same dismissive attitude. This is not a case of “you ordered 30 days, we only delivered 29 – here’s the refund.” People don’t pay for each day’s worth of data, they pay for reliable, daily service. They pay to not have to think about the internet, to allow it to whirr about them unseen as they go about their daily lives, safe in the knowledge that everything will work as it should. Imagine turning the tap each morning and thinking, “I hope water comes out today”. The internet isn’t a luxury item. It’s not comparable to a hotel booking in which you paid for six nights, but only got five, where a clear divisible refund makes sense.

The thing is, Bayer Rosmarin clearly understands this.

“We know that there is nothing we can do to make up for yesterday and what customers want most is for our network to work all the time”, she wrote, in an update issued to media Thursday afternoon at 4:57pm, which you may remember was exactly 60 seconds after you shut your laptop for the day.

“But”, she continued (always a ‘but’), “we also want to acknowledge their patience and loyalty by giving them additional data to help during the holidays, when so many people consume more data with friends and family.”

Of course, this generosity also has the added benefit of ensuring those customers who wish for compensation will have to stay with Optus throughout the usage of that data, by which point they’ll have forgotten their angry pledges to go across to Telstra (who also love a regular outage) and have instead transferred their gripes to whatever service let them down that particular week.

“From Monday, 13 November, eligible postpaid customers, both small businesses and consumers, will be able to access 200GB of extra data, and customers have until the end of the year to activate. Eligible prepaid customers will be able to access unlimited data on weekends until the end of the year.”

Okay, let’s unpack this.

First, why are they putting conditions on this? “Customers have until the end of the year to activate.” Is this how compensation works? Is this how a refund works? Is this how an apology works? Secondly, who is “eligible”? We won’t be able to see the specifics until Monday. Why not now? Why is there criteria to fulfil? Why stretch the uncertainty over the weekend?

200GB of data sounds like a bounty, especially to those who remember the days of 1.44mb floppy discs. But most prepaid users with a monthly plan (one that doesn’t roll over their data month-to-month) already pay for, and abandon, hundreds of GB of data each year. If you use your home Wi-Fi (unlimited data in most cases these days) then you probably only use your phone data when you are out and about. My phone panics and interrupts me with an urgent warning when it appears I am getting close to using two GB of data. Two. On a phone plan that gives me 32GB a month, I am burning the majority of that each month.

And what about those on any of Optus’ slate of broadband and NBN plans, all of which already have unlimited data? Is it now even more unlimited?

This is like giving Elon Musk a scratchy for Christmas. It’s showing Paul McCartney the G chord, winking, and saying, “you’re welcome”. It’s Spotify not working for a day and then saying, “to apologise, we’ve added more songs.” It’s like bringing throw rugs into a $15 million mansion.

Of course, they are offering data, but they will definitely be paying money.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, and numerous legal firms with class action suits, are already circling, and given the cyber attack last September, it is unlikely that the long arm of the law won’t grab Optus, turn it upside down, and shake the dollars out of its deep pockets.

I’ll admit, it is easy to criticise. Kelly Bayer Rosmarin has had a nightmare run as CEO, and as far as I know, she isn’t actually a programming expert, or a hardware technician, or the one responsible for the outage. But her response showed the type of sluggishness you’d expect from someone who tells those frantically dialling triple-zero to maybe duck over to the neighbours’ while their home burns down, and inquire which telco they use.

So, what should they have done? Here’s how I believe Optus should have responded to the outage. CEOs facing their own communications crisis can use any section of this if they wish.

Thank you for taking part in our social experiment this week. As you can see, we all rely too heavily upon our phones and internet connections, as evidenced when the country plunged into chaos upon the removal of these services.

The team at Optus thanks ten million Australians for trusting one single company with their internet and phone services, and in turn: their banking services and money; all entertainment options; vital employment tools; email; payment systems crucial to their small and medium business; access to emergency services, mental health crisis centres and e-prescriptions; contact with relatives abroad or in hospital care; car navigation tools; EV charging networks; poison information hotlines; flight information and tickets; the use of public transport, Ubers, and taxis; much of the remaining public grid; the call centres of Westpac, ANZ, and Commonwealth Bank; Melbourne’s entire train system; and the ability to stream that video of Chris Pratt rapping the second verse to Forgot About Dre.

Optus hopes our social experiment has made you pause to consider the dire implications of essential services being controlled by a duopoly.

We also hope you used this much-needed downtime – delivered to Optus customers at no extra cost – to reflect on the perils of an increasingly cashless society, the complete removal of physical media from our reading, viewing, and listening libraries, and the fact that your posture and eyesight is now that of an eighty-year-old thanks to craning over a square the size of a basketball card for the majority of your day.

We understand that connectivity is important to Optus customers, but how about connectivity to the living, breathing world around you, to the natural patter of your local community? How about connectivity to your fellow citizens of this spinning, grinning globe we call Planet Earth. Put down your phone, get those pods out of your ears, untether yourself, and live like animals, careless and free, like animals.

Use this downtime to run through the jungle, the wind in your hair, and the sand at your feet.”

Yours in throw rugs,

-Kelly Bayer Rosmarin.

That’s how to handle a crisis.

Okay, let’s end with a fun conspiracy theory I’ve been cooking up.

Despite the yellow and green logo, and despite being able to take down the entire country, Optus isn’t actually an Australian company. It is owned by SingTel, a Singapore telecommunications company who wasn’t very inventive with its name.

The entire board of this company happens to be in Australia this week.

The major news around Optus on Wednesday should have been the company’s half-yearly financial results, which were released that morning, and shows Optus’ EBIT fell by 13.9% year-on-year.

That’s not a good result – but now that everyone is talking about outages and compensation, the last thing the shareholders or the Singapore-based board are thinking about is a pesky earnings slide.

It’s genius. Bravo, Optus, bravo.

Enjoy your weekend

The rest of the week:

Optus weren’t the only ones with a PR crisis this week – compare the way in which Kmart handled their own, potential dire mishap, with the above bin fire.

There was also a horse race/trash-prom this week and a fiery AGM for Qantas.

If your eyes are tired from all that reading, why not listen to this week’s Mumbrellacast, where this is discussed further.


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