Sunday, December 18, 2011

SMRT Breakdown: Clamour grows for SMRT CEO to step down

There have been increasing calls for SMRT's CEO Ms Saw Phaik Hwa to resign following another MRT service disruption on Saturday 17 Dec 2011. This followed Ms Saw's response to a reporter's question during the press conference to address the 15 Dec 2011 breakdown which have been dubbed the “worst in 24 years.” When asked if she would reign to take responsibility, Ms Saw responded by saying that "it is something I would seriously consider if there is a necessity to do so, but I think I will reserve comments at this moment."

In the era of social media, I believe that such calls for accountability are not only inevitable, but will be a major issue in crisis management situations.  This is because social media has the ability to rally people.  In a crisis, stakeholders instinctively seek to attribute responsibility (see my earlier blog posting) and once an individual (or organization) is seen as responsible (rightly or wrongly), stakeholders expect contrition.

In this context, SMRT's CEO only accepted responsibility and followed this with a pledge to do better. Hence, in my opinion, SMRT failed in their understanding of stakeholders need for an act of contrition. If SMRT had understood this, they would have stated the act of contrition up-front in their initial statement. Such an up-front statement would have given SMRT the information initiative and given it more credibility.

The question then becomes what sort of contrition. From a crisis communications perspective, experience has shown that for an act of contrition to be sufficient to appease stakeholder anger, the act of contrition must be perceived as “equal” to misery caused. Thus, in Ms Saw's case possible acts of contrition could range from (a) forfeiting her annual bonus; (b) self-imposed “suspension without pay” until the cause of failure has been determined and fixed; or even (c) submitting a letter of resignation to SMRT's Board of Directors for their consideration. While any of these acts will not appease all stakeholders, it will appease many and, in my opinion, “humanize” Ms Saw and gather her some allies.

Thus, in short, the key lesson for crisis communicators here is that accepting responsibility is only one part of the equation. An act of contrition is the other element that needs to be addressed for the crisis communication strategy to be effective.

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