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Eurostar - a blizzard of criticism
Thursday, 11 February 2010 16:41

Just before Eurostar published its review of its christmas chaos, we examined this case study of crisis communications: Neil Gibbons reports.

Sometimes we all want to escape the Christmas rush and get away from it all. On 18 December 2009, that dream came true for more than 2,000 rail passengers who were unexpectedly treated to 16 hours in a dark tunnel under the sea.

Sadly, they weren’t impressed. In fact, their stay was wholly inadvertent – the result of five broken down trains, rendered immobile by the freezing conditions.

Communicate - February Cover storyNow more than a month has passed. And the crisis has become a case study of crisis communications in a social media age, with commentators quick to share their views on the preparedness or otherwise of the company at the centre of the furore – Eurostar.

If hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, the fury of disgruntled rail passengers must come close. And the timeline of the crisis response may make for uncomfortable reading. (Having commissioned an independent inquiry into the crisis, originally due out at the end January, but subsequently delayed to February 12, Eurostar was unable to comment.)


8pm, Friday 18 December 2009

Five trains come to a standstill. Angry customers quickly begin to complain about a lack of supplies such food and toilet paper, while the heat and close conditions led to some to force open doors to get more air to breathe.

Eurostar’s immediate response, anecdotally at least, sounds sluggish. Reports tell of uncommunicative train staff and understaffed phone lines.

“The firm simply did not act fast enough,” says Darren Ponsford, strategy and planning director at communications consultancy Blueview Group.

“Relying on existing care lines to cope with the sudden influx of queries is out of the question. Companies need to be ready to quickly put the right contact solutions in place when a critical situation arises. Consumers need a voice at the end of the phone. If a company fails to provide the answer then they risk a drop in consumer confidence and damage to their brand.”

That’s not to say that Eurostar was entirely tightlipped. “In the ‘one day zone’ actually much of what you saw was a classic corporate crisis communications strategy underway with communications going out via normal news channels,” says Dr Paul Robertson, head of the crisis management team at PwC’s risk and business continuity services group. “But Eurostar neglected the fast-paced social media channels which can be accessed so quickly by your customer base.”


11.25am, Saturday 19 December 2009

The official Eurostar Facebook group had received the first complaint about the lack of information about the delays at 8.40am on Saturday but it wasn’t until 11.25am that the first post from a Eurostar representative was posted. It simply announced the cancellation of all trains scheduled for Saturday.


12 midday, Saturday 19 December 2009

Eurostar had an existing relationship with social media agency We Are Social but this was to a word of mouth marketing brief. However, realising the extent of the crisis, Eurostar summoned We Are Social managing director Robin Grant and his team to Eurostar’s St Pancras headquarters to create a social media response.

“This is an unprecedented situation for them so it’s been challenging, to say the least,” wrote Grant on his blog that day. “Richard Brown, Eurostar’s chief executive and the rest of the team at Eurostar have been working through the night and today, with their priority to get those people that were stranded on trains overnight home and then to minimise the disruption for everyone else.”

Embarrassingly, the Twitter handles ‘eurostar’ and ‘eurostar_uk’ turned out not to be related to the company, and the account on which it did tweet (at around midday) was, some say, not the appropriate comms channel.

“In social media terms, it was bleak until We Are Social started to get some information out,” said Tim Downs, head of public relations agency Brahm PR. “But this was on the Twitter feed from ‘Little break, Big difference’ – a lifestyle blog about things to do in Paris, Brussels and Lille.”

According to Christian Howes, digital solutions architect for web analytics specialist Webtrends, this is one of the main reasons that the media picked up on the crisis so quickly. “Tweets from family and friends of those stuck on the trains remained unanswered by the brand’s ‘one way’ marketing feed Twitter profile,” he says. “The problem with most brands is they’re not agile enough to set up and maintain a useful social media presence which means they miss out on many of the benefits.

“To get the most out of social media you need to be agile, and you have to listen and serve customers, you can’t just keep pumping out announcements about yourself. Social media has got to be a conversation, it can’t be one way.”


7pm, Saturday 19 December 2009

We Are Social managed to persuade CEO Richard Brown to spare time between television interviews to write a blog post and record a video clip detailing the company’s response.

This is where opinions diverge. PwC’s Robertson believes that the video largely succeeded. “The briefings from the CEO went a long way to providing reassurance that the issue was being taken seriously and being dealt with.”

And while others agree that the medium was the right one, some question the quality of a video in which Brown, appearing dishevelled and nervous, sits next to a coat stand and says, “I’d like to say a very sincere sorry.” Writing in the FT, Stefan Stern describes it as ‘a case study in how not to apologise for a corporate disaster’.

The actual execution needs to be of a high standard, says Jonathan Hemus of crisis communications specialists Insignia. “In theory, the video of Richard talking directly to customers, eye to eye, is fine. He says sorry and says the company has learnt lessons but he showed insufficient empathy. He actually gave some of the right messages but didn’t have ability, style or approach to get them across.”

Again, neither video nor blog were posted on the main Eurostar website but on the Little Break Big Difference campaign website.

On Twitter, meanwhile, there was still plenty of resentment. “No Eurostar services on a Sunday now,” said one. “It’s still too cold for Thomas the fcukinguseless Electric Engine.”


4am, Monday 21 December 2009

Eurostar’s foray into social media has by now gained traction in the media and is shaping the news agenda. Early on Monday morning, Sky News begin feeding Eurostar’s Twitter updates live onto skynews.com.

By now, the breakdowns and Eurostar’s response have officially become ‘big news’. Newspapers are reporting the ‘anger’ felt by both the passengers who were on the stranded trains and customers who have seen their journeys cancelled. And much of the heat seems to centre on the tone – rather than lack – of Eurostar’s response.

“They messed up the tone of their initial communications about the crisis,” says Neil Taylor, creative director of business language consultancy The Writer. “Saying ‘we were well prepared’ and ‘it went rather better than some people are saying’ wasn’t going to cut any ice with all the passengers waiting to hear a big, heart-felt apology. It’s a shame, because lots of Eurostar’s other communication has a nice, warm tone. But like many companies, when things got tricky, they hid behind corporate spin.”

Paul Robertson agrees: “With crisis communications, the critical realisation is that perception (of the media, of the public, of your customers) is the reality – regardless of your handling of the events themselves. A well managed event can actually have positive commercial and public impact if it is coupled with timely, open and clear communications.”

Fortunately, as Taylor points out, “Eurostar learnt their lesson; by day three the chief exec was saying he was ‘very, very sorry’.”

And that conciliatory tone was being matched across the firm – for the first time it seemed to be speaking with one voice. We Are Social recorded a video Q&A with Nick Mercer, Eurostar’s Commercial Director, which went live in the afternoon.

And writing on his blog, former spin doctor Alistair Campbell wrote, “I heard an excellent Eurostar interview on Five Live yesterday [with Eurostar finance director Ian Nunn] which struck the right tone and balance between taking the complaints seriously while setting out how things were being sorted.”


6am, Tuesday 22 December 2009

The social media response starts to thaw some of the bad feeling among consumers hampered by cancellations too. One user, claire-zombie, wrote “Wow, just tweeted @little_break (official Eurostar twitter) and they got back to me. My opinion of the company slowly rising.....” Another, catanita, tweeted “Thanks for being easily contactable.” Jane-bradley wrote “kudos to @little_ break for updating everyone as much as they can” while jourik said “I think @little_break is doing a very good crisis PR job. Great example how an engagement platform turns into a natural touchpoint”.

As Robin Grant wrote, “We seemed to make a difference to some of the travellers who were using Twitter and Facebook to get updates on the situation.”


Friday 25 December 2009

According to PwC’s Paul Robertson, this is the point that the fuss dies down and the damage can be assessed. “One week on, this is where the real impact would have taken hold,” he says. “Customer confidence, reputation and bookings impacted as problems persist.”


Monday 18 January 2010

One month on, Richard Brown publishes a letter on the Eurostar website. “We failed to deliver the standard of service you expect and I apologise unreservedly for the problems that occurred,” he said. “Going forward, we need to demonstrate to you that we are doing everything possible to provide the most robust, reliable service during periods of severe weather.” He added that Eurostar was also very aware of the need for better information.

“This is true for both travellers and for the media,” says Tim Downs. “What dominated media coverage were images of distressed and angry passengers and a clearly uncomfortable and under-informed Richard Brown. Now I’m not going to suggest that all of these could have been averted through a better implemented crisis plan. However, a number could have been, there could at least be a modicum of public sympathy for falling victim to the weather conditions and the reputation of the business could be in far better shape.

“And in financial terms the consequences have been far greater – up to £10 million in compensation, increased levels of provisions on board, more checks, additional customer service training - the list goes on.”


And beyond...

Most believe the full extent of the damage won’t become clear for some time. “Ultimately, and although the worst is seemingly over, it is over the next 12 months that the greatest repercussions could be felt and where timely communications will arguably play their greatest role,” says Downs. “The management contract to run Eurostar UK Ltd, which is currently held by InterCapital and Regional Rail Ltd (ICRR) is up for renewal in 2010, and with the outcome of an inquiry still to be heard and no guarantee of a similar crisis not happening again, the fall out of not communicating effectively could be fatal.”

But crises do pass. As Alistair Campbell – one who should know – wrote: “A sense of normality will return. Eurostar should even now be preparing to exploit that moment to the full, in terms of communicating a core message – which will be that everything is back to normal. Provided the crisis is resolved reasonably quickly, and competently, there is no reason why, once the storm has passed, Eurostar should not remain pretty high up the brand reputational ladder.”

Obviously, there are lessons to be learnt. And there’s no shortage of commentators willing to point these out to Eurostar. Echo Research is a specialist in measuring sentiment. Director Howard Brand suggests delving into customer feeling to shape future communication.

“Hopefully, Eurostar has seen the benefit to be gained by surveying the passengers caught up in the crisis, as well as other groups like future passengers, regulators and the media,” he says. “There may be some strongly-worded answers, but all intelligence will help to refine communications and emphasise the importance of these messages - without them, Eurostar would quickly have gained a reputation as incompetent, unreliable and uncaring.”

According to Insignia’s Jonathan Hemus, the crisis has shown the value of preparation. “It’s about having the knowledge and resources ready beforehand,” he says. “It’s important to have all accounts set up and ready to go, and the basic channels ready. Then you need people lined up who have been identified to man channels and pump info out. You want to be seen as the most important source of information. Communicate as much as possible, as early as possible so you’re driving the agenda.”

But other accentuate the positives. Brand congratulates the firm for the clarity of its messages.

“Firstly, it explained that the cause of the breakdown of these trains was chased down and found to be largely due to a unique set of circumstances (the heaviest snowfall since the service began). It couldn’t reasonably have been foreseen but, once found, could be prevented. This stops Eurostar from being perceived as generally mechanically unreliable and prone to breakdowns, like a British Leyland car of the 70s.”