The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) faced a PR challenge last month after a cellphone picture of a sleeping worker went viral on the Internet.
For the TTC, the embarrassing photo was the latest in a string of public missteps in recent months, including an unpopular fare hike, a token shortage and a major service disruption to the Yonge line after a private contractor cut into a subway tunnel.
The photo struck a chord with the public and sparked a flurry of media coverage. In its handling of the issue, the TTC made some key mistakes that only added fuel to the flames:
Mistake #1: Too Many Spokespeople
The TTC should have had one spokesperson dealing with the media. Instead, there were multiple TTC spokespeople doing interviews (including its chair, chief general manager, director of corporate communications and the head of the union). The result? A dog's breakfast of conflicting messages, the appearance of a disjointed organization and a lack or any perception of accountability.
When dealing with an issue or crisis, use one spokesperson for media interviews. You'll present a cohesive face to the public and you'll have a better chance of controlling the news agenda and avoiding conflicting messages.
Mistake #2: Don't Attack the Customer
At the peak of the media frenzy, TTC union boss Bob Kinnear issued a written statement to the media. Rather than dealing with the issue of workers sleeping on the job, he opted to attack the customers themselves:
"It is very discouraging that the picture-taker and apparently other customers made no attempt to determine if there was anything wrong with this TTC employee. A simple knock on the glass might have determined if the collector was in fact asleep or whether he was unconscious as a result of some medical problem. The reports that passengers were laughing at him as they passed the booth makes this even more disturbing," Kinnear wrote.
Instead of attacking your single-largest source of revenue for an internal problem, take responsibility for the situation, tell the public how you're going to fix it and move forward.
Mistake #3: Don't Turn an Issue into a Crisis
On January 27, the TTC held a press conference to outline its plans to improve the system. To their credit, they had a detailed list of concrete steps they would take to help improve customer service. The problem? The two TTC spokespeople on hand (see Mistake #1) stole their own thunder with negative quotes about the situation.
Chief general manager Gary Webster said, "We've obviously found ourselves in a bit of a crisis when you consider the criticisms we're getting." Memo to the TTC: This is what you say in your internal meetings, not to reporters. The result? Webster gave the media the authority to refer to this issue as a crisis. His quote even ended up influencing the headline in the National Post, which read: Saving the TTC from state of crisis.
Ten minutes of flawlessly delivering your key messages can be wiped out in 10 seconds. While they're interviewing you, reporters are putting your responses into one of three categories: 1) might use it, 2) can't use it, and 3) gotta use it. Webster's quote fell into category #3. If he had refrained from uttering that quote, the story (and headline) likely would have been much more positive for the TTC.
With millions of camera-equipped smart phones roaming the streets, we're going to be seeing a lot more companies dealing with incidents like this. No industry or sector is immune to an embarrassing photo from a dissatisfied customer. But when it's their turn at bat, hopefully these companies will be able to avoid the costly and preventable) mistakes made by the TTC and use the opportunity to forge a stronger relationship with their customers.