What we’ve already learnt from #Census2016

by Paris Searson

Published on
August 10, 2016

In what could be the year’s biggest PR fail, Census 2016 is certainly turning out to be one of the most interesting.

In last month’s Politics of Brand series, we looked at whether online election polling would be a future possibility. The Census may well have put that on the back burner.

Having just woken up to the news that hackers targeted the ABS site during Census night, there are already some key learnings emerging.

1. Digital means you can do things differently

Traditionally Census night is one night where everyone fills out a paper form. The big innovation of 2016 was getting people to go online to fill it out. But they didn’t seem to think beyond that. With hindsight, getting the entire population of Australia to go to one website at the same time was impossible. From outages to DDoS attacks, there was little chance of success.

Lots of people (including myself) filled out their online form ahead of time and it is possible to also fill it out after the official Census night. Perhaps in the future they might look at having Census week (with a focus on who is in the household on a particular night) to spread traffic out.

Learning: Look to ways (besides the obvious) that digital can transform your business.

2. You can’t over communicate

Most people became aware of Census night with a letter in their mailbox addressed to: “The Householder”. Now, traditionally I bin mail addressed to this particular person because normally they don’t really mean me, it is a direct mail trick designed to get you to open it and read a marketing message.

Some people claim not to have even received the letter. It could have been lost in the junk mail pile.

Learning: Don’t rely on one method of communication if you have a really important message. Plan ahead with an integrated marketing campaign to make sure your message cuts through.

3. Beware the scheduled tweet

One Tweet last night caused quite the stir.


Malcolm Turnbull’s Tweet about how easy it was to fill in the Census missed the mark, not least because on Twitter the conversation was centred around #Censusfail and how the outages (later we learnt it was due to a DNS attack) were starting to affect people.

The memes started to roll in in response to the Prime Minister’s tweet, including references to Australia’s internet speed and the PM’s Point Piper address, some of the issues plaguing the Turnbull government.


Learning: Social media management is as much about being sensitive to the changing narrative of a live campaign as it is about having the technical capabilities to execute it.

4. Customer experience is key

One of the early criticisms, even prior to Census night, was the lack of assistance provided by the Census call centre. People were unable to get through and weren’t being assisted when their login wouldn’t work. And this was before all 24 million of us were asked to login at the same time.

Learning: Investment in customer service is critical to reputation management. It’s one thing if your product is more popular (or there is an issue) than your forecast predicts. But the ABS was aware of the number of customers they were going to have to be dealing with, and appeared to be way under prepared in the lead up, and on the day.

5. Getting sucked in to a vacuum

The Government missed the opportunity to communicate more effectively in the lead up to Census night, and in the hours during and after. There was no clear spokesperson, leaving the door wide open for criticism by competitors (i.e. the Opposition and Independents). The Census has been declared by the Opposition as an example of the ineffectiveness of the Government.

Learning: Having a key spokesperson, well prepared for crisis communication, can go a long way to demonstrating that you have control of the situation.