Communications in a Crisis

Dafydd Vaughan on 20 December 2009

A Eurostar at St Pancras from lewishamdreamer
Photo: lewishamdreamer (from Flickr)

The past 36 hours haven’t been the best for those travelling with Eurostar. Five trains were stranded for hours in the Channel Tunnel without power, light, food, drink, heating or information. A further train became stuck near Ebbsfleet yesterday evening.

The focus today is on the cause of the incident and the safety procedures. However the issue that concerns me is how public service companies like Eurostar handle communication in such emergencies. Poor communication can lead to frustration, anger and even panic. I’ve experienced this in much less drastic circumstances when commuting to and from Cardiff by train.

Today the media are reporting that Eurostar passengers were given no information about what was going on. People at stations had similar experiences. Even the public and media had no idea of the unfolding events until late on Saturday morning.

It seems a standard practice for UK transport companies to ignore incidents, keep quiet, disappear and leave customers to their own devices. It doesn’t take much to keep people informed – even if there isn’t any “useful” information to give them at the time. Even a simple “The track ahead is flooded; we are awaiting an engineer to confirm we can proceed” provides re-assurance that something is happening.

There are three distinct audiences in any incident, each with different information needs. Those directly involved (i.e. train passengers) who need to know when they will reach their destination. Those affected through waiting to travel or waiting to meet passengers, and everyone else (for example the media and general public).

Open communications to all three groups is key, but how can it be done effectively? Which channels should be used? Well, every possible channel actually. If you are preparing a message it doesn’t take much more effort to push this out on all available options

By example, recently I’ve read reports that Eurostar didn’t start updating Twitter until 14 hours after the incident began. Some have suggested that Twitters low usage justifies it being left until last. But for passengers on trains with phones and computers, this may be the only way that information can be easily received. It only takes one person with access to disseminate the details.

Communication (or the lack of) is a big problem when it comes to any form of crisis. Yet the prevalence of new social media communication actually makes communication easier than ever. Businesses of all kind need to recognise this and plan to make best use of it. I hope that Eurostar and those providing public services learn the communication lessons of this weekend.

On a final note – Eurostar’s social media company behind (We Are Social) has come in for what I believe is unjustified criticism. They actually did a great job given difficult circumstances and went well beyond the requirements of any contractor. The poor communication lies squarely with Eurostar. You can read about “We Are Social’s” involvement on their blog and a interesting response from Grapevine Consulting about the criticism levelled on We Are Social.