Blog in 03 2015.
Living on the L train route in Brooklyn has made me no stranger to rush-hour delays and cancellations. This morning, my ire was even captured on camera and featured on gothamist.com. (That’s me in the bottom-left corner, plotting my escape.)
That picture was taken shortly after a train had vomited hundreds of passengers onto our platform before being taken out of service. But for me, the (very sour) cherry on top was when, moments later, an automated message rang out over the station speakers:
‘Thank you for travelling with MTA.’
Needless to say, it didn’t lighten the mood.
A transport #fail might seem trivial compared to some of the genuine disasters that many companies face. But MTA’s handling of the situation shares many characteristics of crisis communications gone wrong.
Here are four lessons inspired by this morning’s drama.
1. The wrong message at the wrong time will only make people angrier
Two thoughts went through my mind when that robot lady’s voice came over the speaker:
1) Yeah, right. Thanks to MTA, I’m not travelling anywhere.
2) Why the hell are they thanking me when they should be apologising? That last point is crucial. Even if it’s not your fault, acknowledge that people aren’t happy, and say you’re sorry.
2. If you don’t give the whole story, people will make up their own
When I asked a fellow commuter what was going on, she said she’d heard that ‘something’s gone wrong in the tunnel’. And that’s all she knew. Something’s gone wrong? Like what? A suicide? A terrorist attack? A rat on the track? A suicidal terrorist rat on the track? At least two of those options went through my mind.
3. When you do explain yourself, use language that people can understand
What the hell is a ‘rail condition’? Is it terminal? Or is it more like morning sickness, seeing as we’ve had two rush-hour ‘rail conditions’ in a row?
4. Keep people informed
Basically, all I want to know is: Will I get to work tomorrow? I guess we’ll find out in the morning, because MTA isn’t telling.
You’re at a networking event, and you ask someone where they work.
‘Dead Red Design.’
‘What do you do?’
‘We help companies increase their brand awareness, and their brand value, through better graphic and product design.’
We all get this question. At dinner parties. In airplanes. On first dates.
For some of us, particularly those of us in the service sector, it can be hard to answer.
Hell, it can even be tough for entire companies to pin down what they do in one succinct blurb. Clients ask us to develop their ‘elevator pitches’ all the time.
The main issue is usually that we all do a little bit of a lot of things. People and companies. It’s hard to boil it all down without leaving some important parts out.
If you can come up with a compelling, comprehensive elevator pitch for your company, or for yourself, that’s excellent. But a generic, watered-down answer or pitch won’t make much of an impression on your questioner. Or potential customer. It might even leave you feeling a little blah about your own work.
So instead of describing your job, tell a story. Tell the story of your favourite project. The story of Last Tuesday at Work.
And if you’re a company, tell the story of your best-selling product, or a time you really helped a client turn it all around. Or maybe the story of how your company was founded. The need it was supposed to fill.
True, you might not get every important aspect of your work across. But a few memorable points are better than leaving people with a generic, mushy account of what you do.
Back at that networking event, you ask someone else about their job.
‘Where do you work?’
‘What do you do?’
‘Well, last week we got a call from a local supermarket chain. Their profits have been shrinking over the past couple of years. They wanted us to take a look at their entire business, see where they could save. We noticed some little things that were adding up to cause trouble for them: their beef supplier was charging them more than the industry standard; old equipment was driving their electric bill higher than it should have been. We put together a report that laid it all out for them. Then we helped them decide which areas they could attack immediately, and which would have to wait. Now we’ll watch their profits with them. If they go up, we’ll know we did a good job.’
Who would you remember? Who would you want to buy from or work with?
Or the guy who helped that supermarket save all that money, by doing all those things? Who gave you something to really think about, if only for a minute or two?
Granted, most of us aren’t firefighters saving people and pets from burning buildings. But we still have stories to tell. And a story always trumps an abstraction.