How Optus’ response to a crisis became more damaging than the crisis itself

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A modern crisis calls for modern crisis management. Consumers expect to be treated with respect, and the basic tenant of respect is good communication. If you’re in the communications business, well, we expect good communications.

The big question on every crisis manager’s mind this week is why wasn’t Optus match fit when it came to managing its outage crisis?

The Optus outage has created a media crisis for the telco. Credit: Louise Kennerley

Arguably, the most damaging aspect of the crisis wasn’t that its customers faced hours without working phone or internet, but how it was handled.

Where old-school crisis management relied on spin and maintaining a facade of strength during tumultuous times, those days are long gone. It’s 2023; we expect more.

Chief executives hiding in their office until they have the answers they need to satisfy a customer when the time is right is no longer a viable strategy. Instead, authentic leadership is what resonates; a willingness to admit when answers are lacking but assuring everyone that efforts to fix and remedy are relentless.

Imagine if, on Wednesday, a chief executive promptly presented the facts, outlined what was known, what was uncertain, the next steps, and how customers could navigate the situation. Instead, Australians waited until the end of the day to have Kelly Bayer Rosmarin say that the explanation behind the disruption was too technical for a soundbite.

Optus customers seek an explanation for the outage on Wednesday. Credit: Chris Hopkins

Unfortunately for Bayer Rosmarin and Optus, it was too little, too late. We wanted more by then, and implying we wouldn’t be able to understand the technology felt disrespectful.

The world of crisis management is full of myths, many of which prevent big businesses from actually being prepared when crisis hits.

One myth is that all the work around a crisis is done in the acute phase; when the drama hits, when journalists are knocking at your door and customer service hotlines are on fire (or, in the instance of Optus, customers were queuing up outside physical stores). This isn’t the real work of crisis management.

How a company acts when the proverbial hits the fan should just be a matter of executing a process. Why? Because all the nitty-gritty of a crisis – regardless of what it is – should be planned well in advance during times of calm. Who will be the spokesperson? What will we say if we don’t have answers? What is our timeline for a response? How can we make sure the people most important to our business know what’s going on?

Every business is almost always in a state of pre- or post-crisis, it’s just the scale and level of damage that differs. Just as important as the pre-crisis planning, though, is the post-crisis phase, where lessons are learned. It’s when a business reviews what worked, what didn’t, what needed to be improved. Think of it as a post-match analysis.

Optus doesn’t need to have a long memory to find a good case study of a poorly handled crisis. Last year’s data breach marked a prime opportunity for it to learn from its mistakes and implement its learnings into a pre-crisis playbook to be rolled out on Wednesday. Instead, the public and their staff got silence.

There is a saying, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste”. Time and time again, I’ve seen businesses grow from what they learned in their darkest days.

Even the most strategic of leaders can falter if they don’t have a clear path of action, steps to take, and a plan that is in place and ready to go, regardless of the crisis. But the lessons we’re again learning from Optus, the nation’s second-biggest telco, is that being prepared is no longer an opt-in business strategy.

Blame doesn’t lie with the customers for what transpired on Wednesday. But as another old saying goes, “Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.”

No matter how much work Optus does on its bigger picture around things like tech innovation and supporting gender equality in sport, this week’s crisis makes it feel like it’s not getting the basics of communication right.

Rebuilding customer confidence won’t be easy. Not least because Optus allowed its response to a crisis to become more damaging than the crisis itself.

Sally Branson is a specialist in crisis public relations.

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