Saturday, December 17, 2011

SMRT Breakdown: Service Disruption North-South Line

At a presentation today, I was asked to comment on how I thought Singapore Mass Rapid Transit (SMRT) could have better managed the current crisis they are facing over the recent series of service disruptions. The main trigger being the breakdown of the north-south line which affected thousands of commuters.

I essentially shared that in a crisis, stakeholders need to attribute responsibility. And, to assist them in this, stakeholders instinctively consider the three factors of locus of control, predictability and controllability. For a more in-depth explanation, please refer to my earlier blog posting “Framework for Crisis Management”.

In essence, locus of control refers to the perception of whether the crisis was caused by the organization or the situation; stability whether the factors contributing to the crisis was predictable; and controllability whether the organization could have acted to prevent it. Thus, if the crisis was caused by the organization, was something which the organization could reasonably have predicted to occur, and was within the ability of the organization to prevent, then attribution of responsibility would be high.

In the context of the current SMRT crisis, stakeholders currently attribute responsibility to SMRT as they feel that (a) the crisis was caused by the organization's failure to design or maintain the rail system properly; (b) the organization could have predicted the breakdowns as they have been happening recently; and (c) the organization could have controlled for the impact of the breakdown through better preparations.

So what could have SMRT done to better manage this crisis?

First of all, I believe that all crisis communication plans must be based on the truth. In today's perfect information environment, anything less would cause a secondary crisis that will most certainly bury the organization.

Using the Framework, a better response from SMRT's would be to proactively redirect responsibility for the crisis by introducing information that would help stakeholders draw a different attribution of responsibility. In this context, assuming that SMRT did its level best and the series of service disruptions were beyond its control, as a crisis communicator, I would have attempted to minimize responsibility by introducing information that would lead stakeholders to believe that the locus of control was external. For example, during the CEO's press conference, apart from citing possible alignment problems as the cause, SMRT would have done better to augment this information with additional facts alluding to external causes. In this context, information like facts on about strength of SMRT's design, the comprehensive maintenance schedules and perhaps third-party endorsements of the system.

In summary, I felt that SMRT's crisis communications plan failed as it lacked a coherent strategy. While I dare not postulate that crisis communications is a science, I do believe that understanding the “science” behind how stakeholders attribute responsibility, would have helped SMRT weather this crisis better.

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