PR folks on what SMRT's new comms lead needs to fix as Patrick Nathan exits

SMRT vice-president for corporate communications Patrick Nathan (pictured) has left the company after six years with the organisation. Taking over from Nathan is Margaret Teo, previously head of corporate and marketing communications since August 2014.

According to a staff memo seen by Marketing, Teo will be the chief spokesperson for SMRT Group and will be in charge of the organisation’s external and internal communications strategies. The memo added that this includes driving strategic messaging, media relations, internal communications, corporate affairs, community engagement, corporate social responsibility and online engagements through new media platforms.

Prior to joining SMRT, Teo was SVP at Singbridge International. She also brings with her 20 years of experience from the Singapore Tourism Board (STB). During her time in STB, Teo also set up the integrated resorts division and was intimately involved in the planning and development phases of the project up to the opening of the two integrated resorts in 2010. She also handled the crisis communications efforts during the SARS outbreak in 2003 and drove initiatives to reach out to the global tourism sector, including the post-SARS recovery programmes.

The internal staff memo also revealed that Nathan is leaving SMRT to pursue other interests. During his time at SMRT, Nathan headed the corporate communications division for SMRT, which includes corporate marketing and communications as well as the passenger service department. He first joined the company as director, security and emergency planning in 2011, where he was responsible for providing strategy on issues concerning security, contingency planning and crisis management.

According to SMRT’s corporate website, Nathan has over 25 years’ experience in the areas of defence relations and security. Before SMRT, he served on the National Security Secretariat from 2002 to 2004 before being moved to the National Security Coordination Centre, Prime Minister’s Office as its deputy director. At the centre, he was responsible for strategic policy development, corporate marketing and communications.

On top of Teo’s appointment, SMRT has also named Elaine Koh as its chief commuter engagement officer, a position announced in December last year which focuses on commuter feedback. This was in particular to its train services.  According to the staff memo, Koh’s appointment is effective from 1 February 2017. The memo added that Koh will take on the passenger service department in a bid to improve commuter satisfaction through a feedback process.

Prior to the appointment, Koh was director of marketing for SMRT Commercial, a post she held since October 2014. During her time at SMRT Commerical, Koh was responsible for overseeing the planning, development and execution of rental, property and digital marketing initiatives to drive core business goals for the Commercial group and its subsidiaries. This includes SMRT Alpha, The X Collective as well as its new business projects.

She has 20 years of multi-disciplinary experience in consumer businesses, and has worked across a range of marketing disciplines leading strategic planning, development and operations. She started her career at ST Aerospace, and served at Abacus and ParkwayHealth. Koh was also with SMRT from 2004 to 2012, where she held various portfolios spanning corporate marketing, media relations and crisis communication.

What's next for SMRT's brand strategy?

With the media spotlight it has been under recently, Edwin Yeo, general manager of SPRG Singapore, said in a conversation with Marketing that SMRT's situation is “probably one of the toughest" in the world of communications. This is because SMRT provides an essential service, so good communications has probably less of an impact to its business as it would to the political landscape.

“The truth is that SMRT has often been on the defensive in its communications because of all its operating woes, and they could have been more aggressive and proactive in communicating how it is going to address the problems identified,” Yeo said.

As such, the next communications leader needs to be able to provide advice to senior management and influence their decision-making process.

She also needs to have the gravitas to change things internally by presenting to her bosses the kind of scenarios that will result when they say or do certain things. According to Yeo, the first challenge they have is to help an angry public understand the work they are doing and why there have been so many problems internally.

It's time to stop playing only defence and time to get ahead of the bad news.

Yeo added that if there is a problem, the organisation needs to take ownership of it and not wait for further damage to happen, because then it would be seen as an excuse. For example, in November last year, SMRT and LTA drew flak after poor word choice on a train collision incident was made. Instead of referring to the collision as such in initial statements, the organisation described the incident as two trains which "came into contact".

Yeo added that for SMRT CEO character profiling needs to be more strategic, and should be an area of focus.

“The public isn't forgiving, and no matter how well he's led the organisation, each incident erodes his public perception more. Today, the commuters know him as the CEO that has presided over the tunnels flooding and trains colliding. He has not been seen to take responsibility and certainly not instilled confidence that he can fix all the problems. That has affected the brand negatively as well,” Yeo added.

Agreeing with Yeo was Lars Voedisch, founder of PRecious Communications, who added that first and foremost, it’s about rebuilding trust that communications from SMRT is truthful and timely. That would mean being even more pro-active, transparent and frequent in its outreach and dialogues.

“She should spend time on regular updates and meetings with the media. There’s a saying that you 'cannot not communicate'. So her first week on the job will be critical to establish that,” Voedisch said.

This can mean reaching directly out to key journalists to better understand their position, which will allow both parties to share and manage expectations pro-actively instead of a “sit-and-wait” approach. Cultivated relationships with media representatives will be crucial to have a two-way communications flow. This will allow SMRT to better understand what the word on the street is to address reputations issues.

Also weighing in on the issue was Lina Marican, account director at Mutant Communications, who added that the goal for SMRT is to "really to move the needle on current sentiments". In addition, what consumers are looking for is an open and honest dialogue.

"Admittedly, SMRT does have issues that it needs to fix. Apart from listening to consumer sentiments, being plugged into the entire company ecosystem is key to be able to communicate the proactive steps they’re taking to resolve them. It is hard to fault someone who is openly and humbly sharing action points but right now, the communications is lacking that humility to get real buy-in from the public," Marican added.