Friday, October 26, 2012

SMRT Circle Line disruption: Telling the rail story

If the two SMRT breakdowns last December provided students of crisis communications with dozens of newspaper articles as food for thought, the total breakdown of SMRT's 35-km long Circle Line last night provided us with a stark contrast in crisis comms management.

Instead of blanket coverage in the prime pages of The Straits Times (ST), Singapore's only English laguage broadsheet, news of the unprecedented outage is buried on Page 10. The story is a page lead of modest length and no photograph. It does not indicate if SMRT was approached for a comment.

And the story on a service disruption that involved some some 30 Circle Line train stations on the eve of a long weekend and during Halloween season when thousands of revellers would have thronged nightspots was graced by a quote from just one commuter.

The freesheet Today goes one up with a Page 1 story on the SMRT incident. Alas, the story is derailed by a headline which understates the severity of the problem. It reads: "Major disruption on Circle Line, hundreds affected". North Korean press minders have found their match.(Note: SMRT said on Friday that 10,500 people were affected.)

Sugar coating problems with public transportation is not the way to win hearts and minds. People affected will talk. Those unaffected but not unaware will realise the scale of the breakdown. And when people compare what they hear with what they read in the papers, the disconnect between perception and reality will force the thinking public to make a stand.

The first thing to go out of the window when sugar coating problems is credibility.

Once that is lost, the next domino to fall is trust.

Once trust is damaged, people may think the worst of small-scale system disruptions which make it to the mainstream media in future because readers may think the story was deliberately downplayed even if it wasn't. It may also lend credence to rumour mongers who make mountains out of molehills, confusing people who have no beacon of trust to guide them.

From a rail operations standpoint, SMRT should count itself lucky the Circle Line did not breakdown hours earlier during the evening rush hour as thousands more would have been affected in a grim replay of December's outage.

From a print operations standpoint, the 10:26pm service disruption left the print media precious little time to orientate the newspaper to cover the event as the print deadline loomed. The worst possible time for such incidents to take place would be mid afternoon, just before ST editors convene their afternoon editorial meeting (the Nicoll Highway collapse hit that sweet spot, leaving the newspaper ample time to redraw the line up of stories to maximise coverage of the disaster).

Lucky for SMRT, the late night incident also missed the broadcast media's primetime news slots.

From the perspective of crisis comms students, it will be interesting to see the effort made by SMRT to apologise for explain the incident. The longer the delay, the less newsworthy the story. This means SMRT may enjoy a reprieve from this incident not because of better crisis comms preparedness, but from sheer good fortune that the timing of the outage fell solidly in its favour - even with the entire Circle Line affected.

Indeed, the lack of ad hominem attacks on SMRT's new Chief Executive could be explained by the lack of mention of his name in both ST and Today's story. There was no press conference to chair, no media scrum to battle, no SMRT personality to bear the brunt of commuter's anger.

It could be different next time - once the honeymoon is over.

You may also like:
Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa. Please click here.


Anonymous said...

Circle line is new - breakdowns are associated with teething problems inherent in a new system - so the previous spin went. What crap! Either SMRT is not carrying out its maintenance or the construction company and contractors used materials of inferior quality. It cannot be the case that cables and other systems have to be overhauled just after a couple of years.

Credibility? Singapore Pree Holdings has my contempt.

Anonymous said...

I know for a fact that the ST printing presses only start rolling after midnight. There was still time for MSM to redraw the storyline if they choose to.

David Boey said...

Hi Anonymous 4 Nov 2012,
This is incorrect. On some nights, the print deadline (offstone) can be as early as 23:00 hrs.

The Life! pages go to print even earlier in the day.

But you're correct in stating that pages can be redrawn after the first edition goes to print. Will address this in a future post.

Best regards,