The Optus World Cup online streaming debacle was undoubtedly an epic technical and reputational fail. But it is also a critical lesson in the need for well-prepared crisis communication.
When thousands of paying customers were shut out of the biggest sporting event on the planet, the telco got caught up in mixed messages, and never adequately explained how it happened.
Optus purchased exclusive rights to stream most World Cup matches and share the balance with free-to-air public broadcaster SBS. It was a bold plan to attract new paying customers to the Optus brand, yet it all went wrong from day one, with many viewers blocked by buffering and error messages
While the public outcry was inevitable and predictable, the technical failure was compounded by clumsy crisis communication. The company blamed “an extremely high number of viewers logging into our platforms just before kick-off, causing some systems to overload.” Which raises the obvious question, why would it be a surprise that viewers would log in just before kick-off?
Then Optus seemingly allowed their PR Manager to make the rather baffling comment that the company did not skimp on its back-end infrastructure, and add: “I can absolutely guarantee that we did not under-cater in any shape or form.” However CEO Allen Lew clearly said it was a load issue and promised: “We should have done better, we can do better and we will do better. We will solve this problem by the end of this evening.”
Unfortunately it was a well-intentioned but ill-judged pledge, because the problem continued next day. In fact Mr Lew’s premature assurance was reminiscent of when Andy Penn, CEO of rival telco Telstra, followed up a nationwide outage in 2016 by boasting that a review of their network showed its “incredible strength and resilience” . . . just one day before his system crashed again.
Meanwhile, an Optus spokeswoman tried to spread the blame: “Some customers who watched the match on the Optus Sports app, on certain devices through other telco networks, experienced buffering issues.” However, every crisis manager knows that in the midst of a public relations disaster it is never advisable to blame someone else – even when it’s not entirely your fault. And an unnamed staffer from the company’s broadcast studio was later reported saying “sensationalist” media outlets had made the streaming issues “seem like the end of the world.”
After intervention by the Prime Minister, Optus agreed to share some matches, and later all remaining matches, with the primary rights holder and offered refunds to customers.
Commenting on the system failure, Mumbrella’s Tim Burrows observed that “Streaming is not a mature technology and it’s not easy to get right.” While that charitable conclusion might be true, we are not concerned here with the technical aspects, but with the muddled communication. Bear in mind that this latest debacle came less than a year after Foxtel Australia’s network crashed for the premier of the new season of Game of Thrones and they blamed it on “unprecedented demand.” Managing Outcomes wrote at the time that “Unprecedented is a poor excuse for unprepared” and Optus seems to have learned little from what went before.
Crisis management is not just about how to respond when a crisis has already struck. It should also be about worst-case scenario planning, preparing in advance in case things go wrong, and having a good communication plan in place. There just may be an excuse for technical failure in a highly complex streaming environment. But there is no adequate excuse for not having effective crisis communication prepared and ready to go.
Footnote: Two weeks after the event, Optus took out newspaper apology ads admitting it was a “monumental stuff up.” Only time will tell whether that belated effort delivers any real upside.