Back in December when this was still a gaping wound we promised to take a look at the Eurostar rail crisis in detail, to identify some lessons that could help us and our readers learn from this high profile crisis. As we said then, we’re not going to pass judgement on the situation because we weren’t in the room, and frankly there are a lot of Monday morning quarterbacks already on that case. Instead, let’s look at a few key areas that we can all put to some constructive use.
After watching the story unfold, quiet down and revive itself over the past month, we thought it was time to make good on that promise. Unfortunately, there were so many things we wanted to look at we’ve had to stagger our analysis over a few posts, so if you’re not completely alienated by what’s about to follow then you’ll have to come back again.
Here’s the first thing we learned. What transpired was not a social media crisis. What actually happened was this: a few trains broke down. In no way was that caused by the internet, nor was it caused by a sweeping movement of social change that brings unprecedented power to the voice of the individual. It was caused by snow (in response to feedback received in our Comments, I’m updating the “cause” of the train breakdown to “caused by condensation shorting out electrical systems as the trains moved from extremely cold conditions outside the tunnel to warmer temperatures inside.” However, according to this AFP story that states: “the company blamed the ‘wrong kind of snow’ for causing problems with its trains’ electrics”, I think it was a fair error to make – GS.). The second thing we learned was this: business operations and communication functions must be intrinsically linked in order to provide any semblence of good communication in a crisis.
Now before you start sharpening your pitch forks, let me give you a bit of perspective.
If you’re on fire (yes, physically alight), then you have a crisis on your hands – it’s stopping you going about your day to day life. What you want in this case is an operational solution to your problem. You want the fire put out. Ideally, fairly soon. A communication solution requires you to find someone to ask to put it out. An operational solution involves…putting it out yourself, however you need to.
If you’re stuck on a train in a tunnel, where in the best of my experience you can’t get mobile reception or a decent wifi signal, then what you don’t want is to read on Twitter that your train is stuck in a tunnel. In face, you probably already have a hunch that this is the case. What you want…is someone to get you out of the tunnel.
In the meantime, you’re probably going to settle for a) knowing what’s going on, b) knowing how long it’s likely to go for, c) knowing how that’s going to affect your life in the foreseeable future, and d) knowing how the people responsible for your wellbeing are going to make the experience as painless as possible.
At this point, communication starts to have a role to play. Communication in a crisis is all about facilitating the flow of information, and the very human thing to do is to focus firstly on the people who are immediately affected by the crisis. In this instance they are the passengers stuck on a train, closely followed by the people waiting for them at their destination, who are probably on par with people waiting to get on a train themselves. Frankly, everyone else is a spectator.
The priority should be (should always be) to communicate first to the people most directly affected by the crisis, in this case the passengers on the trains, followed by the people waiting for them at the other end.
This information will always “leak” anyway, so if you’re responsible for communication you need to get this bit right first. The best social media strategy in the world would still be useless in this case when you’ve got actual passengers tweeting about pools of vomit, starving babies and over-flowing toilets.
When it comes to actually getting information to our previously identified audiences there are so many other channels that would make for a more targeted (effective) communication of the breakdown information – arguably more appropriate as well. Here are a few:
- PA system on trains
- Actual train staff
- Arrival boards at stations
- PA systems at stations
- Information desks at stations
For passengers or greeters who haven’t left home yet to catch their train:
- A company website interstitial page that re-directs people away from the corporate site for information about the delay (helps stop servers crashing and is just as transparent if you badge it properly)
- Direct to customer emails/sms to advise of the issue
Not until all of the above channels have already been tapped would something like Twitter become a relevant consideration. Although at this point all of your connected audiences who got their information from one of the above channels will already have tweeted about it, and you’re probably already getting media enquiries…so what really are you going to say that’s any different? And isn’t that up on your crisis website anyway? Where people can already get all the information?
Yes, you should absolutely be providing information to external sources, and if you get out there early enough then the world’s news media will happily go and write their stories and then tweet about them – leaving you to get on with fixing the crisis. And if your company has an existing social media strategy that is actually appropriate for communicating crisis information, then sure, go for it. But don’t be fooled for a second that a #hashtag with your brand attached to it is going to make life any better for a three-year-old sitting in a tunnel.
From a crisis management perspective I’d venture that Eurostar not using its (unbranded, push-marketing focused) Twitter account @little_break to provide updates was the right thing to do in this case. As so many of the social media commentators have noted, this is a marketing account with no link to customer services. Why then should it be a considered channel in the first hour of the crisis?
A bigger problem according to many of the eyewitness accounts was the flow of information at all. Had the company got Twitter right, they just would have alerted a bigger audience to the fact there was a problem at all. You know what – that’s why the media exists. To report news. Let professionals deal with that – company focus should be on fixing the problem.
And fixing the problem comes back to our earlier point – business operations and communications need to be intrinsically linked. The communication team can now describe in vivid detail how the outside world perceived this crisis, and hopefully the operations team will take a good look at how passenger comfort might be maintained in the event of a future scenario, followed by communicating to passengers and greeters appropriately.
I don’t believe any agency, be that PR, social media or anyone else should get to take credit for either of those. They should be business-critical activities, not crisis PR.