Lessons from an Image Fiasco

If you pay attention to news from Toronto, you are likely to know about the various publicity problems that have been plaguing the Toronto Transit Commission, a.k.a. the TTC. A favored target of negative criticism for many years, their recent cost overrun with a street car line coupled with a fare increase, followed by major service disruptions, all paled to the recent images and videos of various employees not working when they should be – sleeping, grabbing coffee, or just plain being rude. Capping this is the fact that Adam Giambrone, the current chair of the TTC, is running for mayor in the 2010 elections.

Sleeping TTC Collector

The picture that triggered the controversy

In reality, not every employee of the TTC is rude or incompetent. In fact, most are pleasant and do their jobs well. Having been a rider for many years, however, I can relate to all the incidents reported in the news, and can think of my own stories of gross incompetence by a TTC employee. As a result, hearing about recorded incidents of such incompetence strikes a chord with me and other riders, who immediately sympathize with the rider who took the picture.

There are, as a result, many lessons to be learned from what is happening now with the TTC, which is the point of this article.

First Response

When an incident affecting the public perception of a company occurs, it is necessary to provide a response to the public in order to limit the potential harm that can occur as a result of the incident. Here’s what the TTC had to say about the sleeping collector agent:

ATU 113 Statement on picture of TTC Collector

TORONTO, Jan. 22 /CNW/ – The following statement is issued by Bob Kinnear, President of ATU Local 113, which represents Operating and Maintenance employees of the Toronto Transit Commission:

There have been many media enquires about a picture taken at 10:00 p.m. on January 9 of a TTC Collector described as “sleeping” in the booth. The TTC is conducting an enquiry on this and until this is completed the union will have no comment on the matter except this:

Whatever the outcome of the enquiry, it is very discouraging that the picture taker and, apparently, other customers, made no attempt to determine if there was anything wrong with this TTC employee. A simple knock on the glass might have determined if the Collector was, in fact, asleep, or whether he was unconscious as a result of some medical problem. The reports that passengers were laughing at him as they passed by the booth makes this even more disturbing.

The union will comment further at an appropriate time.

This response is problematic for several reasons – it places blame on the public for the actions of its own employees, and makes assumptions that no one did, in fact, try to wake the sleeping agent. I don’t know whether or not anyone did, but the first statement released should have started with something more along the lines of:

Sleeping on the job is not considered to be acceptable by the TTC except in extenuating circumstances. We are investigating the incident, and will keep the public notified of our progress.

What this statement does is not accept fault for what happened, but explain that if the story is in fact as described by the rider, action will be taken accordingly. This is the first part of response to an incident – making assurances about the internal policies regarding the behavior triggering the incident, and indicate that the incident is being investigated. Placing blame before the investigation is complete is unacceptable (in either direction).

Second Response

Within a little while, perhaps as a result of the bungled handling of the first incident, a video of a driver taking a 7 minute break during his bus route for use of the washroom and to get a coffee was posted on YouTube. This was quickly followed by several more videos and pictures of similar incidents.

This time, the response from the TTC was better:

A TTC bus operator has been suspended pending an investigation into the circumstances surrounding a video purportedly recording the operator taking a seven-minute washroom break and buying a coffee at a doughnut shop at 3:00 a.m. last Friday. As the matter is under investigation, Local 113 of the Amalgamated Transit Union will not be commenting on this incident or on any other matters that may bear on it.

Here, the action is directed against the employee. Granted, in this case, the driver in question was reported to have been verbally abusive to the rider, as well as allegedly making statements that the union would protect him. However, the union was learning from the first incident to not comment at length until more information is available.

Had this been the response to the first incident, perhaps there would not have been the level of public outrage, and perhaps the second incident would never have gained the level of attention that it saw.

Chain Reactions

The problem currently facing the TTC is actually quite difficult. While understanding what led to the current scenario is simple (a bungled first response followed by a second incident before the tumult over the first had died down), figuring out what to do now is much more difficult. This is the problem with chain reactions – once it has been started, breaking the chain is quite difficult.

This is the age of information freedom and social media. You need to act, not react, and you need to relate to the masses, not inform them. People expect interaction, not information. When something gets out of hand like this, you need to rein in control and start working to resolve the problem without letting it get worse in the process.

In the specific example covered in this article, the first thing to do is to make a very public announcement about a zero tolerance policy – if future incidents are reported, they will be dealt with immediately and severely. While this isn’t to mean that it’s blanket approval for a witch hunt, it needs to tell the employees that while discipline may have been lax in the past, it will no longer continue that way, and the union will not be able to protect them any longer from the result of gross misconduct.

Next, they need to look to the reactions to determine the root causes of the negative publicity. Fare hikes during the worst recession in decades is obviously an unpopular move, but if the result was better service, it might have been overlooked (not likely, but it’s possible there would have been less negative feedback). As such, they need to listen to the feedback and try to find some ways of visibly improving services.

The Lesson

What can be taken from all this is that when the public is against you, it’s more important to look at the source cause of the problem, rather than deal with the various symptoms as they appear. Failure to do so can result in the appearance of additional symptoms faster than you can deal with them, and get the public completely against anything you have to say, whether justified or not.