Commentary: What can a Chief Commuter Engagement Officer do to restore public confidence in SMRT?

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SINGAPORE: 2017 did not end well for SMRT. SMRT had to deal with a train collision at Joo Koon, disruptions across its three major MRT lines at various points in the year, and the Bishan MRT station tunnel flooding.

Following these events, a number of senior leadership appointments and announcements were made over the past month to right the situation and restore public faith.

Chairman of SMRT Mr Seah Moon Ming announced in December that he planned to step down from his role as CEO of Pavilion Energy to focus on SMRT, signalling to the public the high-level commitment and focus SMRT will be dedicating to restoring service excellence and public trust.

In late January, SMRT announced that its vice-president for corporate communications Patrick Nathan would be leaving the company, with Margaret Teo taking over to lead the organisation’s external and internal communication to “drive strategic messaging, media relations, international communications, corporate affairs, community engagement, corporate social responsibility and online engagements”. 

She would also assume the role of chief spokesperson for SMRT Group.

SMRT also announced on the same day that they’ve appointed Elaine Koh, SMRT’s director of marketing for SMRT Commercial, to assume the new role of Chief Commuter Engagement Officer, to lead a team to enhance service quality and improve commuter satisfaction through listening and gathering feedback from commuters.

No doubt these leadership changes including the creation of a new Chief Commuter Engagement Officer role to serve better serve commuters’ information needs are welcome moves to improve SMRT’s communications.

Untangling SMRT’s communication woes is a complex exercise that these executives will have to undertake – not an enviable task for anyone in any case.

But will a deeply sceptical public buy in? Will SMRT’s move fundamentally change its communication efforts and transform the commuter experience?

Margaret Teo, vice-president of corporate communications at SMRT.

TALK IS EASY

The knee-jerk reaction to this decision from the man on the street is “talk is easy and actions speak louder than words.”

Some say resources would be better invested in auditing processes, operations management and engineering to improve the quality of train services – so that trains come on time and events like the tunnel flooding incidents do not recur.

To add salt to injury, a few have said SBS Transit is doing a better job in replying to negative feedback and has fewer complaints.

In my view, it is commendable that SMRT is finally investing resources into communications, but shifting towards a customer-centric communication approach is not enough if it isn’t accompanied by quality train service.

What the public expects is not just better engagement when a delay or disruption hits but something more fundamental – the reduction of such instances.

In this, it is laudable that SMRT recognises the problem as the need to improve its responsiveness to commuters as a strategic agent in its bid to improve readiness in dealing with delays – and is beefing up its communications and engagement outfit.

But such a move will only work if there is substance behind the (added) spin.

Just look at the example of Asia Pulp and Paper, a company in the news for its association to the forest fires that caused severe haze in Singapore in 2015.

In Feb 2016, former CEO of the Singapore Environment Council Jose Raymond joined Asia Pulp and Paper, in the company’s move to improve its public reputation after having long battled environmental groups about its land clearance practices. 

Yet the company did not seem any closer to improving its reputation when he left after eight months.

(File photo: SMRT)

CONCRETE CHANGES NEEDED

Moves like the appointment of a new Chief Commuter Engagement Officer to engage stakeholders will only be as effective as the concrete changes made in other parts of the organisation that aligns SMRT’s departments with stakeholders’ expectations and bears productive outcomes – including timely trains and upfront communications with commuters when a delay is expected.

No amount of spin or technocratic responses can make up for the genuine organisational change that SMRT needs – in the areas of better operational performance, good governance and strong leadership.

So SMRT’s move to appoint three new officers to strengthen its focus on rail operations is a welcome sign that complements its boost to its communications and engagement departments

The mention that these new appointments were undertaken to strengthen engineering capabilities and ongoing asset renewal may also go some way to help the public understand what SMRT is doing as an organisation to move towards its goal of a better commuting experience.

RESPONDING DECISIVELY TO THE NEXT INCIDENT AND DELAY

But let’s imagine better communications and engagement is SMRT’s goal. If so, then a measure of success for SMRT is whether it can respond decisively when the next serious incident happens. One way is to enlist its people to tell its story.

Selected representatives from engineering experts to front-line employees and the leadership team should be trained to face the media and take questions should another press conference be needed during the next major disruption. This training needs to start now.

While a balance must be struck so that media engagement does not distract them from their work, research shows that having a team of subject matter experts speak to the press diffuses tension and projects organisational solidarity that reinforces public confidence in incident management.

Transport Minister Khaw Boon Wan being briefed by SMRT engineers on the power rail replacement project. (Photo: SMRT)

This is especially important in a crisis where leaders and subject matter experts are expected to come forward to give more background to an incident. 

In scenarios of delays and disruptions, an engineer is also more likely to have quick access to and be able to interpret the technical information accounting for the incident. He or she may also be better equipped to explain the details than the SMRT chief spokesperson.

When a delay or disruption happens, the challenge for the communications team is understandably having to deal with the influx of information and complaints. Where information moves swiftly over smartphones and news can be rapidly shared peer-to-peer, it is important for SMRT to get ahead of the curve by providing timely, accurate updates.

Even in a 5-minute delay, commuters are always looking for verified information from trusted sources. It’s times like these that are ripe for SMRT to be proactive and build relations with commuters.

Most Singaporeans rely primarily on public transport and the MRT for their daily commuting needs. Many do not have the luxury of getting a taxi or Grab.

With close to 160,000 fans on its Facebook page, emotions are aggravated when there are no updates from SMRT after an initial announcement.

Instead of relying on official communications when a delay happens, why not consider a webcam at each station much like what SingHealth Polyclinics do to help the public set expectations of its queue time at each location? There are also cameras showing traffic conditions at the Causeway and Second Link at Tuas for the same purpose – giving commuters real-time (human) traffic information.

SMRT should see how it can employ technology and marketing communications to enhance the journey experience for commuters. After all, the SMRTConnect app is already a step in the right direction in giving commuters real-time bus and MRT information to plan their journey.

TIME IS NEEDED

After a spate of incidents in 2017, it will take time for the public to see and feel the difference.

While SMRT’s moves to shore up its communications with the public are commendable, what is key is for it not to let up with its engagement and service quality improvement efforts.

The signalling project is slated for completion in 2019 and SMRT may well be seeing the light at the end of this tunnel soon.

Wong Pei Wen is a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University’s Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information.

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