How to move fast when it all hits the fan – learnings from the Census derailment

How to move fast when it all hits the fan – learnings from the Census derailment


There will not be a more visible communications challenge than the August 9 Census website crash.

You have to feel for the ABS team. After their leaders had assured the nation they could handle the traffic, “a series of attacks” disabled the site and instantly earned the census a spotlighted seat in the gaze of a deservedly agitated nation.

Whether the issue could have been technically avoided, based on the type of attack (Denial of Service) and the level of traffic, is something that I am sure will be analysed in the fullness of time.

However, the bigger learning for me and no doubt for the ABS Communications Team is how to move quickly when the big risk you have identified becomes a reality.

Based on my experience, I am sure the prime challenge for them on the night was their ability to execute their Crisis Communications or Risk Management Strategy at the pace that it required.

If the detailed reporting of the night is accurate, there seemed to be a significant gap between the decision to shut down the online form for the night and the external announcement detailing this. To the ABS’ credit, there was some messaging on the site which managed some expectations but I can’t help but sympathize for their communications leaders having to deal with a situation that would have been very tricky to manage.

This reminds me of the challenges we see during these situations in terms of being able to accelerate our approval processes and rapidly release the right message to shape the situation.

With this in mind, here are five tips on how to manage a tricky and fast moving situation like this.

  1. Be well prepared

When Cadel Evans won the Tour De France the one thing he said repeatedly when asked about how he felt during one of the world’s most challenging sporting events (where anything literally can and does happen), he said his team were “well prepared”. Even after he had won it, his main reflection was that they were well prepared – such was their (Team BMC) focus on being ready for anything.

As communicators, we cannot control nor influence everything, but we can prepare well in terms of mapping risks, preparing messages, coaching leaders and understanding potential challenges. We can then use this as a foundation and have a well-tested and well understood plan ready to address good or bad situations.

  1. Agree acceleration processes ahead of time

The critical part of your fall back plan, or your crisis management plan is the ability to move quickly. We know that the most dangerous element during this time is information gaps and the emergence of rumour that fills those gaps and consequently, shapes the perceptions of our stakeholders.

We all know that large organisations don’t have the fastest approval processes and therefore an express path must be agreed. Think of it as a bullet train that only stops at one stop because it fulfils an agreed set of unusual characteristics. I have found the most success with this concept through creating a very simple graphic that demonstrates a normal versus a high speed path. For this to work, you must discuss and test it, ensure the threshold for use is agreed and typically you need a highly influential player to be a lynch pin to give the Minister (or Prime Minister in this instance), a sense of comfort that it will happen as agreed.

  1. Don’t let information gaps form due to unknowns

I often see leaders not wanting to communicate because they don’t know everything, but, realistically, we just can’t know it all in an unfolding situation. In the critical period after a major event has occurred, the best you can do is rapidly communicate what you know and point to a future update. Shape expectations early through being on the front foot, but be honest about what you can’t define and demonstrate your best efforts in providing meaningful information when it comes to hand. This is where a talented spokesperson becomes hugely valuable, alongside a well-tested set of statements that paint a controlled, yet developing picture.

  1. Put people first

All of your stakeholders will have a human interest in your situation and hence it is critical that you put the people story at the forefront of your messaging. Even if the issue is of a technical nature, people are the number one priority so whether it’s your people or your customers, speak to their needs and supporting activities first.

  1. Stick to your values

Even though your situation has temporarily changed, your business is still the same and your actions need to reflect this. Much has already been done to earn your reputation, customer loyalty and wider perceptions of the value you bring. This is developed both through your actions and the stories you tell as an organisation about what is important to you.

Whatever you do, keep connecting back to this in your messaging, where you can. There will be constraints in terms of your immediate messaging but once you get into longer items such as interviews and releases, where the opportunity arises, make sure you re-connect with who you are as a business and how your values (which should be people and customer focused) are driving your efforts.

Benjamin Smith