Friday, September 12, 2008

A compelling reason to ensure government website and intranet information is current

On Monday this week United Airlines in the US experienced a 75% drop in their share price (from $12.30 to $3.00 per share).

This was due to a 6-year old news story on a newspaper website that was accidentally tagged as current and distributed across the US financial press through Bloomberg's online News Service.

The story has received widespread US coverage, such as this report in Wired, Six-Year-Old News Story Causes United Airlines Stock to Plummet.

An accident some would say - but a very disruptive one. The stock price rebounded when the error was uncovered, but only to $10.19 by the end of Monday. That's a 20% loss in investor money (much more for investors who had sold in a panic) because of old news. The longer term damage will include a loss of reputation and trust in the news provider.

What's the learnings for government - or for any organisation?

One of my takeaways is that it is critical that your website and intranet content remains current. Out-of-date information can lead to financial loss for customers as well as media and political pain for organisations.

It has always disturbed me how poor most organisations are at maintaining current information in their websites.

Senior executives get extremely concerned if staff are providing out-of-date information to telephone or face-to-face customers on a one-to-one basis.

No reputable media team would release material to media outlets that they knew was out-of-date.

Printed publications are regularly assessed to ensure that they provide the right information. If they don't, and the mistake is critical, they are recalled, pulped and replaced quickly - costing tens or hundred of thousands of dollars to do so.

However organisational websites often remain dank swamps of old and inaccurate information.

This is despite their ability to be publicly accessed enmasse and have the information they contain trusted and acted on by any customer, citizen, media representative, community group, corporation, public agency, Minister or Head of State in the world with internet access. That's over 90% of Australians and over 1 billion people who can access your website information at home, office or public location.

Intranets are not much better. Your staff rely on having access to the correct information to make the correct decisions. Mistakes can have serious impacts on peoples' lives, on the organisation's reputation and on peoples' careers.

Organisations place enormous attention on training customer-facing staff - the intranet is a critical tool for the between times, for managing ongoing job training and information dissemination that is difficult and expensive to deliver on a periodical basis.

In the communications stakes an organisation's website and intranet are, in my view, the most important tools for presenting accurate and timely information to outsiders and to insiders.

No organisation can afford to rely on having the media publish releases, or fund a dedicated team of face-to-face communicators in every office to answer staff questions.

We rely on digital tools to communicate outwards (and increasingly to collaborate inwards). So let's use them appropriately, rather than half-ticking boxes and creating a larger and more dangerous mess.

Outsiders and insiders alike rely on an organisation's website and intranet for a clear picture of its activities, intentions and approach. People judge an organisation's commitment to openness and honesty from what they see as well as what they hear.

So if an organisation's website is evasively written, shallow or out-of-date, that's the message customers and media take-away, act on and react to. Silence breeds contempt.

Yes it is hard work to keep organisational websites and intranets up-to-date and it requires significant awareness, engagement, support and appropriate resourcing across an organisation.

Business areas need to be aware of where (and when) their material is available and be held accountable for maintaining it.

Executives must appreciate the importance of communication as a concept and specifically of the online channel as a delivery tool for communications - and collaboration, but that's a different story.

This doesn't require just a change in processes or business rules. It is a cultural shift in mindset - a challenging change for many people and possibly a generational one.

But it's one we must make, and the pain caused by not changing continues to grow with time.


  1. The problem we face is that most managers in Gov do not have the "real world" experience in using the web as a communication channel. (5 years max) They understand offline and have been doing it their entire working life, but when it comes to the web, they are still fearing it, fear they will not understand, fear that they will look stupid, fear of not knowing how to control it, fear that their younger empolyee's will make judgement, and the real case that they can not touch or feel it. When you consider the demographic of most government managers, the web is still a very unfamiliar channel for them and it is take another 5 years for them to shift towards it.