How long will it take before the Belgian National Railways discover the merits of crisis preparedness?

By Corneel Maes

The Belgian National Railways (NMBS) continue to accumulate blunders against all common sense in issues management and crisis communications. What seemed to be an “incident” for any well prepared railway or public transport organization yesterday, turned out to be a disaster situation with the NMBS since they were not able to get grips on the situation and – shame on them – neglected to properly communicate about the issue.

Technical failure can happen as confirmed by Murphy’s Law. But as a public transport company – already being under public criticism for its performance and its communications (in)capabilities – should have appropriate emergency scenarios at hand and be able to handle them rather swiftly.

Yet I didn’t see the NMBS act responsibly according to the three ground rules in crisis communications:

Rule number 1: Show empathy. Be seen to care.
Leaving train passengers for hours in overheated trains is not exactly what I associate with being empathic and caring for customers. Instead, the city of Ghent was responsible and pro-active enough to activate their calamity plan and take care of stranded passengers.

Rule number 2: Take ownership of the situation.
I can be very brief. I didn’t see a lot of ownership in trying to cope with the situation. There were no firm decisions made nor communicated to restore the train traffic or provide alternative solutions for passengers.

Rule number 3: Be transparent. Say what you do and do what you say.
Well sorry, but I didn’t see a lot of reassuring, convincing communication attempts to explain what went wrong and how the NMBS was getting on top of things and working to provide immediate solutions to passengers.

All in all, quite disappointing that an organization, criticized in the past for the lack of effective communications, has again missed the opportunity to get its act together.

In the meantime Belgian politics call for dismissal of the CEOs of the three companies that together form the Belgian National Railways. But is that really the solution the NMBS needs? Are the CEOs accountable? Yes. Will their dismissal change anything? No. Confronting them with their responsibility is not enough. It’s high time somebody teaches them how to get their company to a decent state of crisis preparedness.

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