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3 PR Crisis Communications Lessons From this Winter’s MBTA Fiasco

This post was first published by Jenna Burpee on March Communications’ blog PR Nonsense.

MBTA North Station

We all understand that precipitation is part of being from New England, but commuting – especially these last few winter months – has certainly been a nightmare. More than 100 inches of snow crippled the MBTA, and I’m willing to bet many of you who rely on public transportation barely saw your office for much of February.

Though the lack of available transportation affected many, the MBTA’s main issue is even larger than how many (rather, how few) trains and buses were running. As the MBTA taught us, there are certain practices that should be followed when a crisis strikes. Here are three key PR and crisis communications lessons that can be learned from the winter of 2015 MBTA fiasco:1. Don’t Play the Blame Game

It’s very rarely a good idea to get defensive when a crisis occurs – playing the blame game won’t solve the problem at hand. When General Manager Beverly Scott blamed malfunctions not only on the weather, but also on the “100-year-old system in need of upgrades,” it appeared to many frustrated riders as though the agency wasn’t really working to quickly solve the problem.

Given the situation, the perceived lack of ownership for the crisis only added fuel to the fire and further harmed the reputation of the MBTA – regardless of if Scott’s statement was accurate not.

2. Communication: Make it the Most Important Ingredient

As tech PR professionals, we understand that good communication is key in pretty much any situation you can imagine. This especially rings true in crisis circumstances. Looking at all the Twitter rants tagged with #MBTAFail, it’s clear that MBTA officials failed to properly communicate with riders, causing backlash and negative publicity throughout the process.

Although the MBTA aimed to keep its websites, mobile apps and social media accounts updated to the best of its ability, the messages were often inaccurate or out-of-date, and communication failures ultimately resulted in a lot of angry, stranded commuters.

3. Create A Plan – And Stick To It

The lack of a clear plan made matters that much more disastrous for the MBTA. From trains skipping stops that were confirmed on recovery schedules, to MBTA employees having minimal information to share with confused commuters as they waited in long bus lines, frustration levels reached an all-time high. In fact, a month later, it seems officials are just now getting in a routine that is – albeit rather slowly – restoring the commuter rail system.

By having a set plan in place – one that doesn’t change each day – riders and city officials alike would have been more apt to trust the system was doing everything in its power to fix the problem. Further, by sticking to the set plan or restoration strategy created from the start, the MBTA debacle might not have been as severe.

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