Friday, March 23, 2012

Lessons from SMRT crisis comms from Saw Phaik Hwa

Outgoing SMRT boss Saw Phaik Hwa fielded questions on crisis comms issues with this blog in January 2012, soon after she made headlines with her decision to step down as chief executive officer (CEO) of the rail and bus operator.

Though I do not know her personally and never interviewed her during my time with the 90 cents newspaper, someone who read a blog entry (click here) about SMRT's crisis communications posture suggested I approach Ms Saw for her point of view.

I thank this reader for her suggestion. It led to an interesting interview with Ms Saw, who reflected on the crisis comms issues you see below. Sensitive aspects of the SMRT system outage were not disclosed or discussed during the discussion which stretched past 90 minutes.

I appreciate Ms Saw's candour during the informal chat. It wasn't an interrogation but I tried to make the most of the opportunity by being thorough. Questions posed were things on the minds of commuters and netizens. Her replies were no PR smokescreen and, in my opinion, non-evasive. The background to certain situations was explained and this helped with the appreciation of situation.

Read more about Ms Saw's experience with SMRT in her blog here.

Signature management for senior management
Why did you think of the picture of you dressed carried by half naked men?
The D&D held at RWS had a fancy dress theme. SMRT’s CEO came dressed as an Egyptian queen. Ms Saw said:“They asked if I would mind if we carry you in. I didn’t know they were bare bodied. The guys were wearing T-shirts at first but took them off just before entering the ballroom. I was a bit embarrassed but as it wasn’t obscene, I allowed them to carry on.”

Bottomline: At all times, be mindful of how senior management is portrayed.

Compare this episode with the flak directed at United Overseas Bank in February'12 after some of its bank staff attended a Bollywood-themed fancy dress party with blackened faces. Always think a few bounds ahead to assess how your stakeholders or people in general may view such fun and games. When in doubt, drop the idea.

How was the photo released? Was it an inside job?
The SMRT D&D was organized by Fly Entertainment, a company owned by local actress Irene Ang. Fly Entertainment in turn subcontracted the entertainment to another vendor. The picture of SMRT’s CEO was posted on the subcontractor’s webpage as part of its portfolio of projects. It was picked up by netizens after the SMRT breakdown and went viral.

The image was grafted to various backgrounds to produce amusing storyboards that made light of a serious situation.

Bottomline: Check and enforce Non-Disclosure Agreements (NDA) thoroughly. Never allow third parties to damage your company’s image.

Why did you say “People can board the train, it is whether they choose to.”?

This quote was made during a conversation with a journalist three years ago. The journalist said trains were getting crowded and she could not board one even at 9am. Ms Saw disagreed as 9am was after the office hour peak and this was for passenger traffic three years ago, not with today’s passenger loads which increased after the influx of foreign talent.

Ms Saw explained:“I said: 'Cannot board at 9am? How can that be? You can choose to board if you want to.' ”

The published quote appeared as: “People can board the train, it is whether they choose to.”

The context of the quote was not reported. The quote attributed to the CEO made it appear this observation applied to peak hour trains.

Alas, there was no Wish B - What It Should Have Been - the correction dreaded by 90 cents newspaper journalists. Since that interview, this line has been used as a catchphrase for corporate insensitivity and lack of touch with the actual ground situation.

I'm not sure what the Wish B protocol is like now. Before I left the paper in early 2008, any scribe who was slapped with more than three Wish Bs in one calendar year would lose his/her bonus. Specifically, the Merit Variable Amount or MVA. They would still earn their Group Variable bonus or GVA.

Bottomline: Record all interviews. Ask the media for an immediate correction if you feel you have been misquoted.

You may also like to read:
1. Rail security matters for Singapore: Questions to mull over. Click here.
2. A rail security threat. Click here.

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