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Statistics aren’t known for being sexy. Or funny. But last night, as Aussies around the country sat down to tell the government their marital status, the official Twitter account of the 2011 census asked:

“Has anyone picked up this evening? At least you won’t be alone on your #AusCensus form.”

“For a government department to do that, it’s pretty bloody cheeky, but it’s not offensive and it’s not hurting anyone,” says the man behind the census Twitter account, David McHugh. McHugh’s not a statistician. He’s an ex-Seven News journo with a sports background now working as national media manager of census public relations. It’s been McHugh’s use of social media — particularly Twitter — in the past few months that has been pretty revolutionary for a staid Australian government department.

“All the reaction we got last night was awesome, people saying ‘at last a government department using social media properly’.”

The @2011Census Twitter account blends census data — 100% accurate from the 2006 census, McHugh assures Crikey — with amusing zeitgeist commentary. “We’re not very PC,” McHugh admits. “We’re a bit inappropriate, we’re having fun. We’re engaging ABS and census facts with pop culture.”

All the tweets are written inhouse, mainly by McHugh. Take a look at some of Crikey‘s favourite tweets from recent weeks:

“Thank you to Australia’s 18,709 journalists and other writers for today’s awesome Census coverage, it’s Censusational.”

“THIS is a Zumba body. Thanks to Australia’s 13,800 Fitness Instructors.”

“Politicians aren’t the only ones who talk gibberish. According to Census data 105 people speak an invented language.”

“Going ga-ga for @ladygaga. There’s 1,306,915 Bad Romance’s (divorcees), 7543 Paparazzi (photographers) and 1188 people who Just Dance.”

“NSW’s population (6,549,177) is almost double QLD’s (3,904,532) but the Maroons are six times as good at #origin.”

“Census data reveals there are 6533 pilots in Australia having a tough day at work due to one gigantic #ashcloud

Since when do government departments have a sense of humour?

“It’s a different approach we’re trying this time round,” McHugh told Crikey. “People have an expectation of government advertising and when it’s not what they’re expecting, it resonates. There are markets that we haven’t tapped into as effectively in the past as we could have, particularly youth, and that’s why social media has been so important.”

The 2011 census Facebook account has over 21,000 “likes” and is full of photos of newborns wearing “I love census” t-shirts and census collectors having a chat about the number of forms they’ve dropped off. But it’s been the Twitter account — with over 13,000 followers — that McHugh most enjoys, with one tweet in early June kicking off an endless continuation of retweets and growing followers:

“If #JohnFarnham comes out of retirement again, he’ll join the 31,765 Australians aged 61 who work part time.”

“Who doesn’t love Farensy and who doesn’t love a good stat?” asks McHugh. “We thought this is probably a really good approach because it’s fun and entertaining but it’s getting the census message out there … There’s a really good opportunity for other government departments, which are usually pretty dry, to use humour.”

Not that it’s all humour. Amongst the census account’s witty one-liners was info about how to fill out your census online, what to do if your forms hadn’t arrived yet and other details about the national survey that comes along every five year. “You can’t be funny all the time, and we don’t want to be,” said McHugh. “Humour gets a great big following and allow us to communicate other things.”

He recognises that he’s been given liberty on social media that other government departments can only dream of: “I have the freedom to be funny and witty and other departments don’t have that. Not that it works for everyone, for departments like defence or border protection, they’re not funny and they shouldn’t be.”

Crikey has heard that some government departments treat tweets from official accounts like media releases and therefore they need to be cleared in the same way (meaning up to three levels of authority need to tick it off before it’s sent). That excessive bureaucracy doesn’t work with social media, says McHugh, noting: “I don’t think it would have worked well if there was the traditional red tape. We took a calculated risk and it has paid dividends.”

He suggests departments and organisations such as the CSIRO and the Department of Tourism as perfect contenders to use Twitter in an amusing, engaging manner. The challenge is laid down.

But where to now for the census account? “I don’t know,” responds McHugh, “it’s for the organisation to decide. I’d love to see it continue in some way. At the very least, we’re shown the ABS how to effectively use Twitter and social media. We’ve got a  real framework and blueprint for that now.”

And as the census account tweeted this morning:

“Don’t worry, there’s only 1826 sleeps until the 2016 #AusCensus.”

Peter Fray

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