Metro's comms team navigates crash crisis with aplomb

As information trickled into the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority on June 23 about what would become the deadliest train crash in its history, the organization, known to locals as the Metro, coordinated an outreach effort focused on reaching metropolitan-area residents via local media.

As information trickled into the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority on June 23 about what would become the deadliest train crash in its history, the organization, known to locals as the Metro, coordinated an outreach effort focused on reaching metropolitan-area residents via local media. The group also conducted outreach via Twitter, its own Web site, and e-mail, and separately reached out to the national media, victims' families, and employees.

The strategy has earned mostly positive reviews from communications professionals, who said that, aside from small mistakes, the Metro adequately let consumers know about service and safety issues in a timely manner. The group, as well as the mayor's office, disclosed information while avoiding speculation, said Tony Bullock, SVP of Ogilvy Government Relations, who also acted as communications director for former Washington Mayor Anthony Williams.

“They know how to make all of these messages to their consumers using the systems in place, and I think they did as good a job as they could have done on that front,” he said. “The one thing the mayor should not have done, and did not do, is speculate about what caused this accident.”

After being notified of the accident, the Metro's communications staff prioritized outreach to local media outlets because of Beltway-area residents' dependence on the system. The group published seven statements on the crash to its Web site on the day of the accident and sent out e-mail alerts and Twitter updates with new details, said Lisa Farbstein, director of PR at Metro. It also planned to make general manager John Catoe available for a Web chat on June 26, and conducted outreach efforts to its 10,000 employees, victims' families, and survivors, she added.

Metro does not and did not retain a PR firm for the effort; its in-house staff handled the communications effort during the crisis.

“We are trying to let people know that, in spite of this accident, we are a very safe system, and they could continue to ride us,” said Farbstein. “Ridership dipped the day or two after the accident, but that happened because we were telling people to avoid us.”

A setback to the group's communications strategy occurred when Mayor Adrian Fenty misstated the number of casualties that had occurred. Pam Jenkins, president of Powell Tate, said the miscommunication was “something, to some degree, that you'd expect” and praised the overall effort by the Metro staff and the mayor's office.

“There was more of an information flow than I thought I had seen out of the Metro before, even coming out of similar organizations that had similar crises. I think there have been a lot of lessons learned,” she said. “It was really clear to me that they had gone through some kind of training or had walked through this scenario.”

Christopher Hull, SVP and campaign manager at Hill & Knowlton's Washington office, said it's too early to know whether Metro has passed its communications test, explaining that the organization still has to reassure its ridership that the system is safe, and transparently disclose any findings.

“What is Metro going to do to fix this and make sure it never happens again? That is the first order of business, and communicating that is the most important thing that people need to understand as quickly as possible,” he said. “I think that the last thing they would want is to hide anything, including a mistake.”

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