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#Censusfail: Lessons in Preparedness from Australian Census 2016

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With the trending of hashtag #censusfail, it’s safe to say that the rollout of Australia’s 2016 electronic census was an undeniable PR nightmare for the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS). Last night, Australians across the nation were prepped to jump online for an allegedly, ‘quick and convenient’ census collection. Instead, the website servers crashed into the evening leaving hundreds of thousands of frustrated users with error messages and fears of a fine. This is the first year the ‘e census’ has replaced the paper-based form, after the ABS trialled it as a user option in 2011.


This census was marked by controversy long before last night’s debacle, with numerous concerns and complaints arising over new legislation regarding the privacy and storage of data. Perhaps in anticipation of the backlash, the ABS had warned of $180 penalties issued for non-compliance and failure to complete the form on August 9th.


Come Census day, users began reporting errors from approximately 5pm, and by 8pm, the website was entirely inaccessible. Users flocked to social media to vent their anger and it was assumed that the website crashed due to an inability to support such a high capacity of traffic during a peak period. The ABS had previously claimed to have tested the system to handle 1,000,000 form submissions per hour, along with back up ‘reserves’. Indeed, $500,000 was spent on rigorous load testing servers.


Applied to general marketing process, it is never too early to ensure your preparedness. The ABS had 5 years to plan and test the functionality of the site and still failed in their deliverable of providing a technically sound, secure and hassle-free user experience. At the time of writing, access to the census has still not been restored.


Furthermore, their social media response was sorely inadequate. It took a whole 40 minutes for them to respond after pulling the site down completely and leaving users in the dark. People expect a much faster response on social media, especially when we are talking about a time- sensitive event.


Given the negative publicity in the lead up to Census night, the ABS should have responded well before users’ imagination could fill in the blanks and further erode the organisation’s reputation.


Your business may not be in the same position as the ABS in terms of scope or reach, but the same lessons apply when leading an enterprise big or small.


3 key lessons:


Don’t stay silent. Ignoring complaints and issues when they first hit will not insulate you from bad publicity- it will likely ignite more. Even if you don’t have a fully-fledged answer at the time, offer what information you do have to start an ongoing dialogue. It is harder for consumers to stay angry when someone is trying to actively cooperate with them right from the beginning.


Pre-plan communication. Try to prepare a response for every possible eventuality to ensure that communication is prompt. Planning after the fact will lose valuable time and is more prone to poor judgment.


Stay human. Take responsibility and own up to your mistakes, as people are generally more forgiving when they can relate to you. Don’t let yourself be positioned as a faceless organisation that doesn’t care, as you will find it harder to regain public support.

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