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On the face it, there would appear to be little in common between the seventh largest telecom provider in the US and a small rail operator in the UK.
But then some stories emerged around the Christmas break which suggested that CenturyLink and Hull Trains do share one key similarity – a reluctance to speak to the media.
This characteristic was demonstrated very different ways. CenturyLink found itself in the midst of a crisis media management incident, where rather than put people up for interview or put out press statements, it simply referred journalists to its Twitter account.
Hull Trains’ unwillingness to speak to journalists, on the other hand, became apparent in one of its own videos published just before Christmas.
Let’s start with the story that’s closer to home.
The company has endured a difficult 12 months. In one of its own tweets it describes 2018 as ‘the most difficult year in our existence’.
CEO Louise Cheeseman has been taking to YouTube to provide updates on the service and answer the most frequently asked questions from passengers.
A good idea you might think and all seemed to be going well until Ms Cheeseman faced a question which asked ‘why haven’t you done any media interviews to discuss the disruption’ (at around 5 mins 45).
Ms Cheeseman said: “I get asked all the time why I won’t go on to the BBC. Hull Trains is a very small business. We don’t have a lot of spare staff to carry out the work that is required when we are going through periods of disruption like this.
“We have an awful lot of work to do in the background to maintain the two trains we are running and to manage all the disruption and all the customer work that we need to do. And I will keep out of that. I have a role to play in this business.
“If customers want to speak to me then I am happy to talk to them individually. I have to get on with my job. I have to choose my audience and I will choose my audience. I’ve lost count of the number of people I have phoned when I have read about particular complaints which are difficult to handle by my staff. I will pick up the phone and ring those people and that is where my time is best spent.”
If I’m honest, that answer is a bit of a ramble and I’m not convinced it really answers the question – some media training would help with that. But the gist of it seems to be that she is too busy for media interviews but has enough time to speak to customers individually.
While it’s admirable to try to speak to these people directly, I’m not convinced about the time efficiency of this approach.
But this stance also leads to questions about transparency. After all, if you have time to make a YouTube video lasting nearly eight minutes, you can easily do a TV or radio interview.
And that makes you wonder whether the organisation or the CEO is scared of facing tougher questions about the service that is being provided.
The CEO does not always need to be a company’s spokesperson. But if that organisation is, in its own words, having the most challenging year in its history, then it is pertinent for the boss to tell as many customers as possible what is being done to rectify the situation.
And the best way to do that is through talking to the media.
An interview with the BBC will reach far more people than the 1,100 people who have watched the YouTube video.
Ms Cheeseman could still talk individually to the most disgruntled customers and could use some of those case studies in interviews as examples of how she is dealing with passenger complaints and trying to improve their experience.
If Ms Cheeseman’s reluctance is based on frustration with previous coverage, then the best way to counter that it is to get on radio or television and get her message across.
It may not be easy – particularly if you are the boss of a troubled rail company - but if you don’t step up, the media will invariably turn to someone else to fill that void.
The other example of a company unwilling to speak to the media came from the other side of the Atlantic.
CenturyLink’s service outage spread across the country, impacted 911 emergency services and triggered internet problems which reportedly caused ATMs to stop working and left doctors unable to access patient records.
All very damaging and you would think that the company would have been on the front foot, proactively managing the media response to the incident, to reassure its customer and ultimately protect its reputation.
But instead its response broke many crisis media management rules.
Social media channels can undoubtedly be a useful tool to communicate with customers and keep journalists regularly updated during a crisis. But if you are going to direct journalists and customers to these channels you need to have something to say there – perhaps a link to a website with a detailed statement, an apology, or a video of someone senior giving an update in the incident.
The telecoms company did none of these.
Its tweets for most of the first day of the crisis simply said that the network was experiencing ‘disruption’ and that services would be restored ‘as quickly as possible’.
Our network is experiencing a disruption affecting customer services. We understand some customers are currently unable to generate tickets through the CenturyLink help portal. We know how important these services are, we are working to restore services as quickly as possible.— CenturyLink (@CenturyLink) December 27, 2018
When an apology finally came, it sounded very half-hearted, opting for the tired and predictable ‘we apologise for any inconvenience' line. It also reported the problem had been identified as a ‘network element’, a term likely to mean very little to most readers.
CenturyLink engineers and technicians identified a network element that was impacting customer services and are addressing the issue in order to restore services. We estimate services will be restored within four hours. We apologize for any inconvenience this caused customers.— CenturyLink (@CenturyLink) December 28, 2018
What the heck is a "network element"? Why not share what the actual issue is? It's gonna be really sad to learn you screwed up a route broadcast or something really lame— Jon Masters (@jonmasters) December 28, 2018
With these types of updates and no other information from the company to go on, it is little wonder that many stories on the incident reported the company ‘provided no other details, including how many customers were affected’ or that the company ‘didn’t provide details of the problem’. This sort of coverage does not give the feeling of transparency companies should strive for in an incident like this, which helps inspire trust that the problem is being resolved.
You also get the feeling it was trying to play down the scale of the incident. For example, the problem with contacting emergency services was not reported for more than a day. And when it did acknowledge that issue, its advice on what people should do saw it widely ridiculed.
We are aware of some 911 service disruptions affecting various areas through the United States. In case of an emergency, customers should use their wireless phones to call 911 or drive to the nearest fire station or emergency facility. Technicians are working to restore services.— CenturyLink (@CenturyLink) December 28, 2018
“Im being murdered let’s drive to the fire station”— Temm (@TemmTem_Furry) December 28, 2018
Would smoke signals work? What about two soup cans and a string?— FUTsarnaev (@Crookd_Hilary16) December 28, 2018
The other key thing about the handling of this incident is that having taken the decision to direct everyone to Twitter for updates, the company neglected to remove a pinned tweet which told readers how well it was doing.
As we said earlier, social media channels can be a very important tool during a crisis media management incident – when used well- but they shouldn’t be used as an alternative to speaking to the media. It is not an either-or situation. Both have their role to play.
Whether you are in the middle of a fast-moving crisis or have longer running reputational issues, media interviews remain the best way to not only inform and update those affected, but restore trust in your organisation.
*Download our FREE eBook to find out more about planning for a crisis. It includes a checklist to helping you identify the right spokesperson, messaging templates and a risk register to help you identify your organisation’s vulnerabilities.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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