The Importance of Consistent Messaging During a Crisis

John Bailey is Managing Director of ICON International Communications, Ketchum’s exclusive affiliate partner in Singapore and Australia.

SMRT, the publicly listed operator of Singapore’s Mass Rapid Transport system, became the latest company to discover the power of “citizen journalists” when it suffered the worst breakdown in its operating history on December 15th.

The breakdown, which happened just before 7 p.m., stranded thousands of rush-hour commuters in crowded trains without ventilation for up to two hours, spreading chaos across the city state’s public transportation network. Several commuters fainted in the packed trains and windows were smashed for ventilation. Outside, bus stops and taxi stands were packed with commuters frantically looking for alternative means of transport.

But the issue which really ignited public outrage was the message broadcast to drivers in SMRT’s taxi division, which operates more than 3,100 cabs across Singapore. The message appeared on the drivers’ in-car monitors, which are used to direct them to the next pickup and are clearly visible to passengers. The notice read:

“Income opportunity. Dear partners, there is a breakdown in our MRT train services from Bishan MRT train services to Marina Bay MRT stretch of stations. Partners.”

A passenger photographed the monitor screen on a smart phone and uploaded it to Twitter from the back seat of the cab, and it promptly went “viral.” The photo generated hundreds of outraged tweets and blog posts, and made newspaper headlines the following day.

SMRT apologised for the “oversight,” explaining that staff were using a pre-formatted message template, which has since been “corrected.” But the incident demonstrated the importance of consistent messaging across all communication channels in a crisis, including internal communications to employees or contractors. It was also yet another example of how quickly an apparently insensitive or inappropriate response to a problem can flash across social media sites and help to redefine the public image of the organisation.