The story of the communication company that failed to communicate

Do you remember the CEO who gave an emotional press conference when her business was at the centre of a massive data breach?

Well, whether it’s just unlucky or accident-prone, barely a year after the worst data breach in Australian history, Optus and Kelly Bayer Rosmarin are back in the crisis communication spotlight.

The telecommunications company’s frail reputation has been further battered by a mass network outage that left people without phone or internet connection.

 

The disruption, which started last Wednesday, is estimated to have impacted 10m people, as well as hospitals, public transport networks and businesses.

And the company and CEO have been widely criticised for their response to the crisis. In fact, the Australian Chamber of Commerce labelled it a “clown show”. And a specific part has been described as a “PR disaster”, which seems like a good place to start our analysis.

Optics matter in a crisis.

So, the decision by Ms Bayer Rosmarin to proceed with a photo shoot at her lavish mansion just hours after the outage struck was ill-advised.

The Daily Mail reported that “luxury items like throws, shrubbery and furniture” were seen arriving at the property for a photoshoot for the architect who renovated the home.

The CEO was not present.

But it does not look good. Her husband, Rodney Rosmarin, admitted the timing was “unfortunate”, which raises questions about why it was not stopped.

Here’s what the media made of it:

Optus CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin's $15m Vaucluse mansion is the scene of an elaborate photoshoot while Australia grinds to a halt due to massive internet and phone outage Daily Mail

'PR disaster': Optus CEO slammed for holding glamorous photoshoot at mansion during national network outage Sky News

 

What else can we learn from the story?

Speed

When a crisis strikes, an organisation must act and communicate quickly, even outside of normal office hours.

It’s no longer a golden hour – brands may have as little as 15 minutes to start communicating.

The Optus outage began at around 4am. Yet, the first response from the company, in the form of short, bland, social media posts, didn’t go out until 6.47.

That’s a long time for rumour, speculation, narratives, frustration and negative impact stories to build.

And it was hours later that we heard from the boss.

She eventually spoke to the ABC radio station – via WhatsApp because her network was dead – but provided little new information or insight.

And the story had already run away from her.

 

Communicate, communicate, communicate

You must keep communicating during a crisis

It is better to say too much than too little.

Having cut much of Australia off, you’d think the company would be keen to keep everyone informed.

Yet it seemed reluctant to communicate or make getting information particularly easy, despite Communications Minister Michelle Rowland urging it to be “transparent and timely” in providing updates to “frustrated” customers. “Consumers are hungry for information,” she added.

The lack of communication was raised during the ABC interview, and Ms Bayer Rosmarin sounded defensive and appeared to blame the media.

“I think it would be great if the media could help direct people to our messages,” she said.

“We do have messages out there. We are being very clear with our customers. It would be great to continue to direct people to our website and the My Optus App, where it is very clear what our customers need to do.”

That advice seems somewhat flawed when people can’t access the internet, as the presenter pointed out.

The CEO said: “There are definitely places where people can connect to Wi-Fi. There are plenty of organisations that offer Wi-Fi. Our stores have connectivity. Our messaging is still working through the My Optus App. So, we hope customers are taking advantage of all those other avenues during this period where our service is being restored.”

She subsequently defended her company’s “front-footed” communication, saying there had been several updates and media interviews. And she claimed the only message people want to hear is that the network has been restored.

We would argue that they want constant information. Even if little has changed, keep reminding them that you are working to restore the service.

People were unable to call emergency services and critical helplines – you have to make sure they know you are doing everything possible to tackle the crisis.

There also needs to be more of a strategy to the media appearances. Rather than carrying out a few random interviews late in the day, would it have been better to hold a press conference remotely – as it did during the data breach crisis – to reach as much media as possible across the country? Or try to get on as many breakfast news programmes as possible to try to control the narrative?

 

Technical

There has been little information about what caused the outage.

It has called it a “technical network issue” and said it can’t say more until investigations are carried out.

What jars more is that the CEO has also claimed the issue is too technical to explain.

She said: “It’s a very technical explanation for what happened. There is no soundbite that is going to do it justice, so we want to really bottom out the root cause and when we have that very clear and in a digestible form, we will be forthcoming.”

That lacks the transparency needed in crisis communication, suggests there is information it does not want to release, sounds arrogant and can create the impression the company does not know what went wrong.

It reminds me of a famous quote from Albert Einstein.

“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

Again, it also creates an information void. And technical experts have been queuing up to share their thoughts on what went wrong.

Worryingly for the brand’s reputation, it adds to the impression it is not fond of transparency – it has not made public a Deloitte review into its data breach.

 

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Playing down?

Ms Bayer Rosmarin appeared to try to play down the significance of what had happened as the service was gradually restored.

Speaking on Melbourne’s 3AW radio station, she said: “All telcos occasionally have outages, and we hope our customers will understand how hard we’ve been working to restore services as a priority.”

Having been at the centre of a nationwide blackout lasting nine hours that caused chaos and confusion, this comes across as a clumsy attempt to suggest the issue was not as big as people think – not a good crisis communication approach.

She also went on to suggest Optus customers get great value for money.

“I believe, at Optus, we are a customer champion, and we go to great lengths to give our customers great value for money, excellent service and coverage and unique features they can’t get anywhere else,” she said.

This was said in response to a question about whether the company would face an exodus of customers.

But is this the right time for this sort of self-congratulatory message? It feels a bit tone-death and desperate to discuss value for money and excellent service when people have gone much of the day without being able to use it.

It may have been better to apologise (again), show you understand the impact of the outage, stress services are being restored and talk about needing to win back the trust of customers.

 

Learn from past mistakes

As we mentioned earlier, it was only a year ago that Optus endured another huge reputational crisis.

While Ms Bayer Rosmarin won some praise for her emotional reaction in a press conference and during a media interview, which helped to show her human side, the company also endured plenty of criticism.

It was slow to act, taking four days to inform all impacted customers of the data breach. It also initially tried to reach customers solely through the media because it was the “quickest” way to inform.

And it positioned the breach as a “sophisticated attack that penetrated multiple security layers” – a claim that was dismissed by cyber security experts and government officials.

So, you would think it would have learnt lessons from that debacle and improved its crisis media management.

Yet, similar issues have undermined its latest crisis response.

 

Rebuild

Can Optus rebuild trust among its customers?

That’s a critical challenge after any crisis. And it is a particular headache for a company still rebuilding trust from its last time in the spotlight.

The company’s recent track record and the severity and scale of the crises are likely to see some customers take their money elsewhere. How many chances do you give a company?  

Regaining trust and rebuilding its reputation will take time. And there are clear obstacles as it faces government reviews and inquiries into what went wrong.

It must reassure customers that lessons have been learnt from these debacles and that it cares about the service it provides.

And, for a company based on communication, it needs to get a lot better at communicating.

 

Media First are media and communications training specialists with more than 35 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers. 

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