Poor word choice on train collision adds to SMRT and LTA's PR woes

Yesterday, two MRT trains collided at Joo Koon station due to a signaling system fault, resulting in 28 injuries in total. Following the situation, SMRT and the Land Transport Authority of Singapore (LTA) issued joint statements. Marketing has reached out to SMRT and LTA for comment.

The first statement however, drew flak for the use the word “came into contact” to describe the collision.

Netizens called out the statement an attempt to “sugarcoat” the train collision and also pointed out that it was inappropriate to use the phrase due to the number of injuries reported. Some also drew comparisons to the time the PUB described areas affected by flooding as “ponding”, a move also criticised by minister Vivian Balakrishnan in 2012, according to AsiaOne.

In the subsequent posts updating the situation, SMRT was quick to change the words "came into contact" to "collision". While the transport system was quick on its feet, Scott Pettet, LEWIS’ senior vice president of Asia Pacific told Marketing that the issue highlights the challenge of effective crisis communications when not all the facts are clear, but yet a brand is under pressure to make a statement.

“Giving SMRT the benefit of the doubt, the comment about ‘coming into contact’ may have been crafted prior to the full gravity of the situation becoming clear. When I say benefit of the doubt, I mean that it was a genuine error in judgement, as opposed to a deliberate attempt to downplay or mislead,” Pettet explained. He added that in any crisis situation, the facts are more important than speed, and as such,

SMRT and LTA should have waited.

"Both parties could have simply put out a statement saying that services have been disrupted and they are investigating the cause. Once the facts are known however, they need to evolve their position very quickly," he added.

He added that words are "vital" when dealing with crisis situations. A poor choice in phrasing can have serious downstream implications for consumer sentiment and confidence towards a brand. This is because stakeholders need to see that the situation is being treated with the appropriate level of care, and that there is a genuine expression of concern.

“Cavalier comments, or those that appear to downplay the seriousness of an incident can result in backlash from consumers who are becoming increasingly adept at detecting corporate spin,” Pettet said.

Agreeing with Pettet was Lars Voedisch, principal consultant and managing director of PRecious Communications. Voedisch explained that the statements were full of jargon and used a language people would not usually use.

In a crisis, people should use clear words which are easy to understand and relate to.

“Overly using complicated terms and big words creates the impression the issuers are trying to shy away from responsibilities and are hiding behind the statements," he said. He added that  brands in similar situations need to start with admitting when something has gone awry and then explain what has happened using language which consumers can relate to.

“The most cynical statement was issued by LTA quoting the technology partner: ‘Thales has confirmed that the old and new signalling systems continue to be safe for operation.’  If it was really safe for operation, why then did two dozens of people get injured?,” Voedisch said, adding:

With statements like this, authorities lose credibility.