It began with shock. Quick whispered conversations and then it was all over social media. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA or Metro) was shutting down all trains for more than 24 hours beginning at midnight on March 16. Emergency inspections of 600 jumper cables were needed following disruptions to three of its six train lines earlier in the week and may have been connected to a fatality over a year ago.
The shutdown was unprecedented. The media quickly started researching and couldn’t find an analogous situation. The closest was “Carmeggedon” in Los Angeles when the 405 (a major highway linking two parts of the city) was shut down. Apparently, no one had ever completely shut down a subway system in a large city.
Things had occurred so quickly that it was clear that Metro hadn’t fully consulted it’s partners. Regional rail lines attempted to bring online additional train cars, but the short notice made it difficult. The Office of Personal Management, the HR organization for the federal government, authorized unscheduled teleworking and leave, but many employees had anyway left work (and their laptops) by the time the announcement came out. The announcement was so rapid that even Metro’s own bus system (separate from the subway) was not going to be able to add enough capacity to alleviate the lost capacity.
Crisis communication experts talk about three frames that exist in crisis: the villain, the victim, and the vindicator. The victim is the person or people who were harmed. The villain did the harm and the vindicator is seen as coming to the victim’s rescue. The victim here is obvious: Metro’s ridership and other commuters who normally rely on taking Metro to work or school.
Metro has a difficult road ahead of them and its new management is finding itself in a tough spot. Their challenge? Being seen as the vindicator and not becoming the villain. The reasons for becoming the villain are ample. Despite its many problems (here’s a great explanation of what they are and why), the DC area is highly dependent on Metro. It’s a system used by all socioeconomic classes and its shut down will impact riders and non-riders. School is still on and despite the lack of a fully functioning transit system, life will go on (albeit with a very frustrating commute).
The one opportunity that Metro has to be seen as the vindicator is staying on message that this is about safety. Public announcements from its general manager and board chair have stayed on target. This system wide closure is about safety. There were problems with electrical jumpers and the only way to approach this problem was to conduct a safety inspection while the system was offline.
This will be tricky as the Metro system is frequently derided because of its host of issues. Similarly, other organizations are vying to be seen in the vindicator role. I got an e-mail late last night from Uber detailing its plans to help you get to work. I’m sure Lyft and the traditional taxi companies are doing the same thing.
This is the challenge in crisis communication. Staying on message, despite being pushed and prodded for additional information. Trying to keep control of the conversation so that you remain in the role of vindicator. Metro’s spokespeople may struggle over the next day or longer to stay on message about the importance of safety as they are hammered away at by the media and the public. If they can show that they are tangibly improving safety on the tracks, then they make walk away from this crisis with improved faith instead of the current climate.
This is the crucible that is crisis management. Will an organization whether storm or emerge painted as a villain? Can you message strongly enough to be seen as a vindicator despite any statements from the victim that color you otherwise? Can your actions be see as helping and not hindering and can you make your long-term priorities clear as you navigate through the situation? It’s not an easy road (after all, it is a crisis) and we’ll see how Metro emerges in the coming days.