elevenM’s Arjun Ramachandran describes how a trust deficit has hamstrung Optus’ communications response to its latest outage.
In a former life as a media advisor for a major bank, I was on my way to our end of year party when my phone started to light up with calls and messages from 2GB, Channel 7, and various print media outlets. I knew immediately my night of fun was over, even before the first drink.
In this role (over a decade ago), I had responsibility for managing media responses to IT glitches affecting the bank’s systems. Back then, outages of online banking, ATMs and EFTPOS were more common as many of Australia’s banks undertook major and complex overhauls of their technology infrastructure. I came to get used to the phone ringing, but not so much that it always seemed to happen at the worst time – like when I was in my party best.
When news filtered through mid-week of the major outage affecting the Optus network, my heart rate spiked, and old demons immediately resurfaced. I’ve watched with professional interest the intense criticism – once again – of Optus’ communications response.
The irony is, when major outages like the one afflicting Optus yesterday occur, the early comms approach and message is actually rather simple. (Especially in comparison to the more complex and arduous tasks being undertaken by committed IT and customer service teams trying to resolve the issue and deal directly with customers).
- Own the issue.
- Acknowledge the impact on customers.
- Demonstrate your empathy and contrition.
- Convey how you are responding and investigating as a priority.
- Provide alternatives for affected customers.
- Commit to, and provide, regular updates
There might a few other elements, but that’s really the bones of it.
So why didn’t it land well for Optus?
A year on from the cyber-attack, Optus is again being pilloried for a shabby communications response in relation to this latest incident.
I tend to disagree with assessments that Optus has failed to practice Crisis Comms 101, and even to some extent with the perspective that Optus has not provided enough detail (though there’s certainly something to be said about the relatively low profile of CEO Kelly Bayer Rosmarin in the early stages of the outage).
Optus did hit most of the above dot points in its early comms. As an example, look at this thread it posted on X/Twitter (click to see full thread).
For the most part, the company is also saying what it can and should reasonably say about the underlying technical issue, short of getting into excessively detailed technical descriptions about network devices and protocols that wouldn’t help a lay audience of affected customers in a meaningful way.
So why haven’t the messages landed and why is the Optus response again being labelled poor?
My assessment is that while Optus has been using the right words in most statements most of the time, the company is operating out of a trust deficit created by how it responded to the 2022 cyber-attack.
This trust deficit has set the context for how its current response has been received, and has hampered Optus’ ability to demonstrate the key principles of a good crisis communications response (eg. empathy, transparency, accountability, responsiveness, competence), even where some of its messaging is arguably aimed at doing just that. The existing trust deficit also has the effect of amplifying negative sentiment whenever the CEO uses a poor choice of words or strikes slightly the wrong tone (which she has regrettably done on a few occasion).
It’s not a novel idea. In personal relationships, a pre-existing lack of trust in someone is more likely to see us receive their words critically, with suspicion, and to assess their mistakes more punitively. The words of a trusted partner, in contrast, are received with openness and confidence, and more forgivingly. The key point here is not to assess Optus’ “communication failures” this week in isolation, but as a result of its previous shortcomings in crisis communications, which have created a context for distrust.
The below examples illustrate Optus’ trust deficit in three key areas of crisis response: Accountability, Empathy and Transparency
If you’d like to assistance in developing your cyber crisis communications plans, reach out to us at hello@elevenM.com.au.