5 lessons to learn from #CensusFail

Digital, Crisis Communications

Purple 16 Aug 2016
4 mins

Digital and Design Director Jamie Wilkinson discusses what we can learn from #censusfail, regardless of why the census site went down on the 9th August.

1. When trouble’s brewing engage, don’t dismiss.

This has been a bubbling story for weeks, as various privacy-focused social media users raised concerns about the security of the system, implications of data matching, and risk of recording names and addresses for four years rather than 18 months.
A week ago, news began filtering in about issues regarding the peculiar logic behind some of the online questions and there was growing anger in some communities regarding the requirements to complete the survey. One lesbian couple claim to have been told by the ABS that one of them should describe themselves as the ‘father’ of their children to complete the form. By the day of the actual census, half a dozen MPs had declared they would break the law by not including their names.

The ABS minimised engagement on all these fronts, dismissing concerns out of hand. A lack of engagement with all of these issues set the tone, and the people, against the whole process and wasn’t a wise course of action.

2. Don’t underestimate people’s interest in privacy.

Yes, Facebook knows almost everything about you, but this is something you hand over incrementally in return for the right to stay connected to the things you love. Woolworths and Coles know everything about you, but in return, you save money on shopping and get access to better deals. The ATO knows most things about you, but there’s a tax return in the offing if you comply.

The Census asks lots of questions with a much less tangible reward and, this time, the ABS didn’t make the case for why, and for what purpose. The tough questions about privacy weren’t being asked in the TV interviews they grudgingly did, even though it was clear from online forums like Twitter and Reddit that privacy was a major issue for many people. We don’t know whether these forums were being monitored (they should have been), but there was very little upfront, consistent advocacy to counter people’s genuine concerns.

3. Turn off your auto-scheduling immediately.

I usually include this advice in any social media strategy I’m involved with. When an issue hits, it’s important to appear engaged with what’s happening, and pumping out content on your social channels which ignores the issue at hand is a mistake.
The ABS Twitter account continued to post automated reminders to people to fill out their census for hours after the site had failed. (By the way, I quite liked the idea of getting a reminder tweet from the ABS actually – it was a good bit of engagement in theory, but blithely pumping those messages out for hours to people who couldn’t complete the census even if they’d remembered was a classic social media error).

At one point, as late night frustrations hit boiling point in along the Eastern Seaboard, and people in Perth were just sitting down after dinner to a site that wouldn’t load — the ABS twitter feed was posting cute pictures of babies.

Distraction can work when things are going wrong but is disastrous in the midst of a crisis.

4. Engage or lose control.

As a spectator sport, the #censusfail was a fantastic tribute to social creativity and the power of imagination. The undercurrent of memes, jokes and finger pointing would have done any Australian proud, even with the knowledge that there’s a serious aspect to a potentially failed, expensive census.

Our Storify feed from the evening shows some of the more creative responses to the story.
The ABC even got involved at one point, and when the national broadcaster is burning you with Gifs, you know you have crossed the Rubicon.

5.  It could have been better – maybe.

There might have been a moment when this could have been salvaged but it would have needed ABS to harness the humour that was being used against them into something clever.

To begin with, at least, much of the social media conversation only had an undercurrent of mild frustration and schadenfreude. The hashtag #bettercensusquestions is a good example of people engaging at least, albeit with their tongue firmly in their cheeks. In the early stages, this could have been exploited if ABS had been more nimble, quick to accept there was a problem. I wonder whether there was even a plan in place for what to do WHEN things turned the way they did. Most websites would struggle with 9 million people trying to log on at the same time. It doesn’t take much of a leap of imagination to conceive of some potential issues as a result.

As far as I could see, there wasn’t a spokesperson available on the evening, and the (rare) relevant tweets the ABS did put out didn’t really acknowledge the problem. Instead,  there was a vacuum for comment, which means the good-natured, wry response hardened into total #censusfail. The lesson here is not to bury your head in the sand. Engage early, be honest, and be the first to own the issue before tens of thousands of people leap in and do it for you.

Finally, it’s worth looking at the impact this has had, even just through social channels. At it’s peak between 8 and 9pm AWST, 4 public social media messages per second were being posted, creating 77,000 mentions over the last 24 hours, most of them negative.

Purple Director of Digital Jamie Wilkinson is a former BBC broadcaster and an expert in digital and social media content and management. Email Jamie.