What we can learn from the NSW government’s Sydney Trains crisis

Meltwater's David Hickey takes a look at the digital clues leading up to Sydney Trains' narrowly avoided strike - clues which may have offered a solution to dodging the crisis entirely.

With the rise of social platforms as a medium for public feedback over the last decade, the luxury of time to plan for a crisis has dropped significantly. Forget hours, a company usually has just seven minutes to acknowledge a rising issue.

Source: Wikipedia

Businesses often lack the tools and foresight to prepare themselves for crises, and in doing so miss the opportunity to implement a strategic approach to resolve a problem. Instead of choosing to ‘wait and see‘ if an issue will become a full-blown crisis, businesses need to be prepared to implement a consistent, transmedia approach to crisis management at the drop of a hat.

Sydney Trains’ scheduled driver strike was going to affect 1.3 million Sydney-siders on Monday. The difference between this planned strike and many other crises? There was ample time to prepare for it in advance, due to the ongoing negotiations with the Rail, Tram & Bus Unions occuring weeks in advance. The Union also warned that a strike could be a likely outcome if negotiations weren’t successful.

The importance of looking at all the information available outside your own four walls is particularly important when it comes to preparing for a crisis, especially in a situation where millions of stakeholders and large economic impacts to a city are involved.

To Sydney Trains’ credit, it consistently kept the Sydney public up-to-date in the lead up to the overtime ban and planned strike, as well as offered suggestions for other means of transportation.

However, investing in active monitoring tools that provide external stakeholder insights in real-time could have easily mitigated a full scale crisis — or at the very least, helped better prepare for last week’s overtime ban, and its roll on effects.

Customer feedback should not be ignored — it’s an early indicator to start preparing for all potential outcomes to avoid any large-scale impact a known issue may become down the line. Take the 11 January network issues as an example, where over 40 per cent of sentiment towards Sydney Trains was negative as a result of the lack of rail staff to fill the newly introduced timetables.

What eventuated two weeks later was a planned strike due to the need for drivers to work overtime because of a lack of staff. While the Fair Work Commission has ordered NSW rail workers to abandon their 24-hour strike, in most cases, the Fair Work Commission or someone similar won’t be there to step in and help resolve their issues.

Reputation management is a 24-hour job, not a side thought. This is especially true when significant economic impacts to a city as populated as Sydney is involved. Investing in active monitoring tools that provide stakeholder insights in real-time could have easily mitigated a full scale crisis — or at the very least, helped prepare for last week’s overtime ban, and its roll on effects.

You can’t manage what you cannot measure

Perhaps it’s a certain reluctance to admit when an issue has become a full-blown crisis, but many businesses continue to prioritise old media first and then look to social media as back-up. The most successful crisis management strategies, however, put equal emphasis on social and traditional media.

The public — and any business — have access to more information than ever to help inform strategic business decisions and prepare for a crisis. Social chatter and conversations are happening in real-time, and often reveal the trending issues that have arisen around a brand. The #SydneyTrains hashtag for example, clearly showed that the trending issue in January were around the pay rise negotiations between the Union and the government (Gladys Berejiklian).

Outside insights is the new digital reality. Listening and reacting to the conversations happening beyond the company’s walls will fundamentally help mitigate a problem before it becomes a crisis.

Modern communication teams in all industries must move away from crisis management to crisis mitigation, or risk missing the tell-tale signs of a rising issue that could have easily been abated.

We are living in the era of two-way transparency, and brands like the NSW government that continue to underestimate the importance of real-time feedback outside of traditional means do so at their own detriment.

David Hickey is director of Meltwater ANZ.


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