Saturday, November 18, 2017

SMRT - A Case Study of Failed Crisis Communications

These past few months have been challenging for SMRT to say the least. From daily train disruptions to the flooding of the MRT tunnel to the recent train collision at Joo Koon, nothing seems to be going right for the company and CEO Desmond Kuek. Public calls for Desmond to be held accountable by the Government are growing by the day and we suspect that his days are numbered.

SMRT ceo desmond kuek accident joo koon

But let us put aside our personal angst and see what we can learn from this ....

According to our crisis communications framework, stakeholders attribute culpability based on the 3 factors of locus of control, predictability, and controllability. As such, if a crisis is perceived to be something the CEO has control over, can foresee to happen and has the ability to prevent, culpability will be high.

While some might argue that the collision at Joo Koon station on 15 November 2017 was an accident and hence beyond Desmond's control, this would be the case if it was an isolated incident. But taken in the context of all that has been happening at SMRT, stakeholders view the accident as more of the same and hence something Desmond should have foreseen to happen and should have prevented.

They say hindsight is 20/20, but Desmond's decision to cite "deep-seated cultural issues" as the cause of SMRT's woes was a big mistake. In crisis communications, the objective is to reduce or de-link stakeholders attribution of culpability to the organization in the 3 factors. As the CEO, the proverbial buck stops with him and citing cultural issues only served to reinforce the point that Desmond is fully responsible for everything that is happening at SMRT.

In our opinion, SMRT would have managed this crisis better if they had focused their messages on reducing attribution in the factors of locus of control, predictability, and controllability. In the case of the flooding, this could have been done by emphasizing the multiple control measures, system redundancies and layers of checks. Hence, the failure was not something management could reasonably be expected to foresee or prevent (lack of predictability and controllability). As for the collision, we understand that Thales is the vendor in charge of upgrading the signaling system. Thus, while SMRT cannot shirk responsibility, it should share the failure with Thales. In this incident, the objective should have been to reduce public perception of SMRT's locus of control. Having said all this, Desmond Kuek's comment about deep-seated cultural issues will negate any efforts to stem the tide against him. 

To be honest, crisis communications is more art than science. This, however, does not mean that science has no place in crisis communications.


If you found our comments on this crisis useful, check out our online crisis management course on Udemy.

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