“No One Had Prepared For This Event”: Melissa Hopkins On The Optus Data Breach

“No One Had Prepared For This Event”: Melissa Hopkins On The Optus Data Breach

Melissa Hopkins (right), Optus’ former chief marketing officer, said that “no one” in her marketing team “had prepared” for the data breach last year that affected around 40 per cent of the population.

Speaking at the Association for Data-driven Marketing and Advertising’s (ADMA) Global Forum in Sydney yesterday, Hopkins said that despite Optus “like any good organisation” having “crisis management responses” for “things that are really heavily linked to your businesses” such as network outages, bush fires and floods.

“No one had prepared for this event to happen,” she said.

“We had pre-approved copy around that, we had teams that we knew who to pull in, who were the core people to be involved in crises. As a marketing team, we had been quite nimble in how we responded to it. I think the more interesting thing with this was just the gravitas and the scale and, indeed, the sensitivity of the situation. That meant had to look at a really different approach.”

Optus’ response to the data breach was heavily criticised by many in the weeks and months that followed. Mark Forbes, director of corporate PR and crisis comms agency Icon Reputation, told B&T in September last year that customer comms had been “poor and slow.”

“It took four days from the announcement of the breach for the 9.8 million impacted to all be emailed. Surely an immediate mass email warning all 11 million Optus customers would have been more efficient, especially as the customer emails contained no personalised information about what data had been stolen,” he added, noting that none of the emails said the company was sorry.

Instead, Optus expressed “great disappointment” that it had been the victim of a cyberattack.

L-R: Nadia Cameron, Melissa Hopkins

During the talk, Hopkins said that Optus sent out 120 different individual forms of communication to 9.7 million customers over a three-week period and detailed the information that had and hadn’t been put at risk.

“My first love was the customer,” Hopkins told the assembled crowd at Doltone House.

“For me, sitting in the room with the core people that were working through [the breach], was just the impact for the customers, how we would communicate with the customers and ensuring that none of them were brought to any harm as we were working through the severity of the situation.

“There were some people that said, ‘Well, shouldn’t you have just gone and texted everyone immediately?’ What are we going to text them? We’ve had a breach and your data may have been affected. What is likely to occur from that? You’re alarming people, we didn’t have the answers, we would have had call centres that were absolutely overloaded.”

The pressure that Hopkins and the rest of the company were under was clear to see. She said that they were trying to work through the machinations of the data breach “really, really fast” and “on limited sleep.”

Throughout the 35-minute fireside chat with journalist Nadia Cameron, Hopkins repeatedly made clear to the audience that the breach was “criminal activity” and that Optus had spent a “huge amount of money” on cybersecurity and stopped on average “about a million cyberattacks a year.”

Hopkins characterised the mood around the telco as like being “in a government or the army” as everyone had such clearly defined roles.

“I was given the role of managing customer communications and any message going out to customers across any single channel. I ended up having the last say on what happened with a lot of that stuff in the marketing and comms sense,” she added.

“In the usual world where you’re debating back-and-forth with peers from different departments that might not agree, but the respect that everyone had for everyone’s subject matter expertise and role in doing it was quite extraordinary.”

Hopkins explained that she had put the groundwork in place by forming strong working relationships with other areas of the business.

“I would say that maybe that’s part of my success, that I’ve always championed working cross-functionally. And I don’t think Optus would have been able to respond in the manner that it did without those types of relationships and cross-functional working,” she said.

“I had a great relationship with my CIO, very tight relationships with the legal team, for example, customer success, obviously we had people coming into stores or dialling in, our data for how they managed all of that data. So I think that probably made it a little easier because those relationships had been established in the first instance.”

When asked by Cameron how she helped the marketing team navigate the media maelstrom, Hopkins looked over to the staff on the Optus table for support.

“I think I did okay, didn’t I?”

Receiving some thumbs up, she ploughed on.

“I’m going to touch back that our core focus was doing what was right for the customer. It’s really hard when you wear your heart on your sleeve as I do as a leader, particularly building a brand that didn’t have a brilliant reputation when I started.”

Optus announced that Hopkins would leave the company in December last year and would move to become Seven West Media’s chief marketing and audience officer in March of this year.

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