I got on the St. Louis MetroLink at 6:50 AM, expecting to arrive at my office around 8:05. My commute on the train is pretty predictable; it takes 15 minutes to get from my initial station to the station where I switch from the red line to the blue line, and then another 45 minutes to get to my final destination. from there, it’s a 15 minute walk up to my office.
So, when I walked into my office at 9:35 AM today, I was more than a little annoyed with what I’d just been through. I’m still not entirely sure what disrupted the system this morning, but I do know this: the situation was not handled well by the Metro officials.
To summarize what happened: a train broke down due to some sort of electrical failure. Those of us on trains were forced off and told to wait for shuttle buses that would take us into the city. There were 300+ people waiting for buses, but only 2 shuttles available initially. It took the officials more than 30 minutes to clear the platform. The buses wound up being incredibly slow because each one had to go through all of the downtown stops to ensure that people who needed to go downtown got there. Those of us who were trying to get to the later stages of service (including the airport!) had no choice but to sit on the buses and wait to be dropped off. The alternative, of course, was to put people on shuttles going where they needed to go, but the Metro officials seemed to have no concept of the value of time.
Now, it’s tempting to gripe about all of the little things that went wrong during this breakdown (and believe me, I’m just hitting the high points here, because a lot of minor things went wrong as well), but frankly, I’m much more interested in examining the issue from a PR standpoint and looking for some application. After all, it’d be hard to mess things up much worse than the folks at Metro did today. Anyone working in services or products would be wise to avoid their mistakes.
When a problem occurs, don’t try to cover it up. One of the most annoying things about this morning (and other Metro failures I’ve encountered) is that the train operators and station staff are told to say that the trains are “experiencing delays.” No passenger wants to hear that, because the whole point of taking the trains is that they’re supposed to be a reliable and timely means of transportation. Simply being honest and saying, “one of the trains had a mechanical failure, and we’re not sure when service is going to be restored” is far better than saying, “we’re experiencing delays.” The passengers are going to find out anyway, so it’s best for Metro to own up to the situation and be transparent about it.
Likewise, when a problem occurs with a recall or a service failure, it’s far better to own the situation than to try to downplay or ignore it. That might have worked in the old days, but in the 21st century, communication has to be transparent. BP was a poster child earlier this year for trying to manage the Deepwater Horizon situation with an outdated PR playbook.
Make sure front-line staff are properly trained to communicate the crisis. One of the most irksome things about this morning was that the 300+ people who were forced off a train had no idea what was going on, and the officials dealing with the crisis had no ability to communicate it to them. We had one gentleman shouting out times in which he believed shuttle buses would arrive, but he never explained what was going on, or how things were going to work, or what we should do in the meantime. He never apologized or answered questions. He never asked for feedback. He also was visibly annoyed when people would ask him questions because they wanted to know what was going on. It was clear that this gentleman was not properly trained or equipped to handle a crisis. Logistically, he was trying to be helpful by arranging for shuttle buses, but he only wound up tense and nervous, something that translated over to the crowd of people waiting.
One of the first rules of crisis PR is to make sure the people on the front lines are trained and ready to communicate. All this gentleman needed to do was to stand up, address the crowd, and explain the plan to us. He could have then answered questions and provided us with a chance to make suggestions. In a similar service outage a couple of years ago (that was handled just as poorly), I came up with a solution to get some people off the platform, and the Metro officials actually took the suggestion and were able to thin the crowd a little bit. Talking to the crowd helps to ease their concerns, builds trust, and allows for new ideas. It’s the best way to handle a crisis.
The same principle applies to service or product companies for making use of formal research methods, social media or even just soliciting real-time feedback from customers in the field. Communication is a two-way street, and it almost always is preferable to leaving people to feel like they’re being led blindly.
Consider why people are angry and annoyed, and do what you can to alleviate it. The Metro officials seemed oblivious to the fact that people were angry and annoyed because they were trying to get to work on time. The entire way the crisis was handled only served to make them more angry and annoyed. For example, the officials never offered shuttles to get people back to their cars (which would have seemed, to me, to be the logical choice!) so they could just drive to work. That would have probably alleviated some of the congestion. I know it’s the path I would have chosen.
The second thing they should have done was to send the shuttles to specific locations. Trying to get downtown? This shuttle will get you there. Trying to get to a further destination? This shuttle will take you to where service is being restored. Such a plan would have not only sped up the shuttling process, but also made people less anxious and nervous on the buses.
Another problem I noted was that while 300+ people were stuck waiting on the shuttles, a series of regularly-scheduled buses pulled in and sat at the station, doing nothing. I realize that logistically, this might have been problematic, but it might have been worthwhile to have at least one of those buses become a short-term shuttle, ferrying people to downtown and back, and perhaps dispatching a Call and Ride (or some other vehicle) to cover that bus’s route in the meantime. The regular East St. Louis buses don’t have a lot of passengers during the morning, and this would have greatly helped ease the congestion from the station.
All of these are alternatives that could have been contingency plans had the Metro officials actually had a written disaster plan in place. As a frequent Metro rider, I know that trains are constantly breaking down, and the contingency plans never seem to involve a lot of forethought. It’d be nice to know that they’ve got a plan in place for dealing with the situation and that the plan can be rolled out on a moment’s notice. It’d also be nice if the Metro officials could consider the root reasons behind passenger anxiety in these plans and not, say, force passengers onto a bus that’s going to take an hour to get them back on the train because it has to drive all over downtown first.
Any service or product company should have a plan in place for dealing with PR situations. With products, the plan should be in place for recalls, defects shipment failures and backorders. With services, the plan should be in place for service failures or for errors. Any time any outage in service or product is even potentially going to happen, a plan should be in place for the PR fallout.
I’ll keep riding the MetroLink because it’s better for the environment, it’s cheaper, and it provides me with a lot of benefits (such as being able to work during my commute). But I know I, and hundreds of other riders like me who endured today’s mess, would be thrilled if the folks running the show could deal with these occasional crises with a little more forethought next time around.
What are your thoughts? Share them below!