Some days working in communications in Government can be tough. Yesterday was definitely one of those days. After a tetchy few weeks in the run up to the census, the first I was aware of the communications drama unfolding at the ABS was a series of tweets yesterday morning describing graphically how a number of senior bureaucrats and pollies were responding to what had clearly been a major systems failure on the census website. The various conversations seemed to be lurching all over the place. Was it an attack or not? Was data lost? Whose fault was it? The various spokespeople seemed to have differing views about the key message. As the drama unfolded, someone published the costs of the project on social media, creating another mini firestorm Meanwhile, the communications message was getting more and more garbled. We were given some insight about denial of service attacks (“like a truck parked across your driveway” apparently) and that such an attack was “always likely” and we heard language that included phrases like “an attempt to frustrate data collection” and that the problem was a “malicious attack” and a “false positive”. As we all became experts in hacking (or whatever this was), we learned that the system has been tested to be capable of handling a million submissions per hour. Some of us privately wondered whether that would be enough to cope with the early evening rush as people got home from work and settled down to fill in the online forms. And things became so tense that finally the PM and Treasurer hosted a press conference which referenced IBM and the Australian Signals Directorate. A difficult day indeed. So what can we learn? Hindsight is a gift to people commenting after the event, but a review of events does raise a question about the communications strategy. We now know that at 7.45pm on the night of the census, a decision was taken to close down the website. It appears that the first public announcement was a tweet from Census Australia some three hours later saying that the system was down and would not be restored that night. Knowing that meanwhile the ads were still running and public were getting increasingly frustrated, it’s the (lack of) activities in those three vital hours that are most instructive in terms of learning and moving on. There should have been a public message broadcast on national media as soon as possible following the decision to shut down the server. It should have come from a senior, well known and trusted spokesperson, not through an unnamed social media account. If the delay in making that announcement was based on the fear of likely public and media reaction, the alternative strategy of having multiple spokespeople with differing explanations appearing randomly across the media the next morning plainly didn’t work. In damage limitation mode, the first communications priority on the night of the census should have been to make that clear announcement about the website being down. This was a live issue affecting all Australians. The second priority should have been to pull all the ads still running on TV and digital media, with the third being to unite all communications through one senior communications team with total control of all messaging. In tactical terms, the wording of the announcement should have been designed to save people wasting their time logging on and (continuing to overload the servers) and to provide them with an alternative date for completing the census, accompanied by a sincere and personal apology from a senior statesman. I’m pretty sure that most people would have shrugged their shoulders, understood and got on with their lives. At the very least, many thousands of people would have been saved a wasted trip to a website that had already been shut down. Ahh…hindsight… Sometimes, even in the heat of politics, honesty is just the best policy.
If you've spent more than a few years in marketing, you've probably made a few mistakes along the way. I can smile now about hearing that thousands of golf balls meant to be on magazine covers were actually rolling around the floors of newsagents all over the country. I'm pretty sure my boss didn't use the words "health and safety" when he called me in for a quick chat.
When I come to write my media memoirs, I'll probably also recall an issue of Trout and Salmon that went out without a price and had to be given away free, or the cover mounted energy bars for Today's Runner that melted into a sticky mess of sugar and paper, or that time an editors car was stolen with three bags of competition entries in the boot or indeed the chastening tale of how Drive!, a tape of classic motoring rock anthems compiled by my colleagues on the mighty Q magazine came back from the printers looking like it was called Drivel.
There's more. A bookful. Mistakes, I've had a few.
But then again, I was lucky to spend my formative working years in a company that encouraged risk taking and saw mistakes as lessons to be learned from. Woe betide you made the same mistake twice, but the risk of stuffing up now and again was seen as the price paid for having a punt on crazy ideas.
Grahame Steed's maverick vision for a magazine about boy racers and cars with huge stereo systems could have been a big mistake. The Lamborghini loving experts on other car magazines certainly thought so. But thirteen months after launch, Max Power was breaking all records. Same goes for the genius who decided to try putting a girl on the cover of FHM after the first few issues had featured Vic Reeves and Chris Evans. And of course the Donald brothers who launched the true publishing sensation of the century, Viz, from their bedrooms in Newcastle. Drawing the cartoons themselves and selling it in the pub.
To err may be divine. But to create truly great new products, it's so important to have permission to stuff up now and again. And mistakes, other peoples as well as your own, are always opportunities for learning and improvement. Right now in Sydney, a great example is unfolding. From a government department.
I'm sure the people who have just launched a naming competition for Sydney's new ferry fleet would be aware of Boaty McBoatface. They'd be aware of the negative publicity and how the UK government were roundly criticised for not having a bit of fun. They'd have read expert marketers saying that Boaty could have been a triumph of marketing, with kids everywhere lining the streets to welcome him to their home town. (Actually, they were probably right). And they'd have read the tsunami of opinion from old school researchers in cardigans who warned, with the benefit of hindsight, about "the dangers of public consultation". (Wrong, all of them).
And maybe, just maybe, they learned from it and decided to go ahead with exactly the same plan.
Except the Sydney ferries version of Boaty is different. And better. They've made the final decision making process very clear from the outset. The judges here aren't faceless people in grey buildings, but instead expertly chosen independents. It's not a beauty contest where the highest vote wins. (In the Facebook era, that's never a good idea).
But like "Boaty", this is a community engagement programme that does in fact engage the community. Rare indeed.
They've approached their communications with a light touch and a sense of humour. They've offered gentle suggestions and made entry easy. They've received a heap of free publicity and backed it up with brilIiant use of their owned media. (As the young people call it...to you and me it's "house ads"). They surely knew that people would draw comparisons with Boaty, but what's that thing that Donald Trump says about publicity?
To me, the campaign to date is a masterstroke in marketing. The people behind this have learned all the mistakes made by the Boaty team, addressed them and then harnessed the terrific worldwide interest in Boaty to get their own front page coverage. But this time in a good way. And yes, people will post daft names on social media. But here it's working for them, not against.
I've been outside Government for a couple of years now and genuinely have no idea who is behind this, but well done to all. Proof once again that the idea that "Government marketing" is somehow cloistered from the machinations of marketing in the rest of the world is just plain wrong.
And on that point I'm sure I'm not mistaken.
The crowning glory of this campaign now would be to name one of the new boats "Bryan Ferry". There's your guaranteed front cover splash story on newspapers, social media, radio and TV all over the world right there. Publicity that puts Sydney, the world's greatest city, back on the map, boosts interest in Sydney ferries and doing their brand no harm along the way.