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A few crisis management tips for Eurostar

Posted on 22 December 2009 | 11:12am

If you’d asked me a week ago, I’d have put Eurostar in my top ten brands list. Given its long and tortuous history -it arrived 120 years after the original Act of Parliament allowing for the tunnel to be built was passed – the Channel Tunnel has been one of the great infrastructure advances of our lifetime, and the Eurostar experience a cut above the average rail trip.

It is in part because it’s reputation is strong that the damage done by recent events appears to be so severe.

What needs to be done now is fairly obvious. Get the service back running again. Compensate those worst affected by the disruption. Sort out the condensation systems that led to the initial breakdowns. And learn any lessons from the last few days.

The most important of those is getting the service back running again, which will act as a reminder of what a great thing it is that London and Paris, or London and Brussels, can so easily and so quickly be connected. Two and a quarter hours to Paris. Under two hours to Brussels. It is a fantastic thing.

At the moment, all we are getting is an orgy of the media’s favourite word – ‘anger’ – as disgruntled or stranded passengers queue to give their horror story.

Clearly what happened is unacceptable. But sometimes these stories are presented as though the disruption was deliberately planned by a wilful and incompetent management.

I imagine the last thing Eurostar executives want or need at Christmas is to be hanging around St Pancras or the Gare du Nord getting chased by cameras and berated by customers. Being the panto vilain for the season is part of the punishment they have to take.

But if all of the above can be done within a reasonable time frame, and with a sense of steady progress towards a set of clear objectives, then the reputational damage, because of the strong reputational base they have, can be contained. But it does require a real sense of empathy, urgency and progress towards getting everything sorted.

I did not see the interview with chief executive Richard Brown described by Stefan Stern in the FT today as ‘a case study in how not to apologise for a corporate disaster.’ But I heard an excellent Eurostar interview on Five Live yesterday – I think the man’s name was Nunn – which struck the right tone and balance between taking the complaints seriously while setting out how things were being sorted.

Crisis management is an inexact science. But assuming anyone at Eurostar has time to read a blog or two, can I offer a couple of observations from my own experience of crisis management in the public eye.

The first is that you once you are in crisis management mode, you have to explain everything you are doing. There is no such thing as too much information or explanation at a time like this. The overall objectives have to be set out clearly, alongside the detailed plans by which they are to be met. This is communications which has to operate at every level – mainstream media, particularly TV and radio, constant updating of company website, direct comms to customers and staff, advertising, marketing materials. There has to be a sense of the situation being calmly brought under control, according to an incessantly communicated plan.

For those managing the crisis, perhaps the most important insight to hold onto is that the crisis will end. It may end in policy changes, personnel changes, resignations and recriminations. But it will end, and 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.

Indeed, sometimes sorting out a crisis can add to reputational strength. Willie Walsh at BA did himself no harm at all in getting his head above the parapet, and keeping it there till the situation was sorted, when Terminal Five got off to its chaotic and incompetent start.

It probably doesn’t feel like that to Mr Brown and his team right now. And doubtless I would be expressing myself somewhat differently if I was currently stuck in Paris or Brussels.

But that is the other thing to remember … there is an epicentre to a crisis, and that is where Mr Brown and the worst affected passengers are based. The rest of the world carries on turning around them. In fact, provided the situation stabilises soon, I’m keeping them in my top ten for now.

  • Patsy Hills

    Easy to say from the comfort of your own home or office. My daughter was stuck in the train and it sounded absolutely dreadful. Also one of the constant complaints was a lack of information, so hopefully they will read and act on your message!

  • Mal Kelly

    I was watching the news with my wife last night and made the same point – how often the news reporters talk of ‘anger’… in fact a lot of the people they interviewed in recent days seemed quite calm and accepting of a difficult situation, but the newsreaders and journalists can’t stop talking about anger all the time.

  • Colin King

    Saw a speech you made on crisis management last year. I still quote from it whenever we have a mini crisis at work. I remember your rule 1 … don’t go to crisis management mode unless it genuinely is a crisis. So you clearly think this is a real crise for Eurostar. Interesting blog, always give food for thought. Merry Xmas

  • Peter Farley

    All fine Alastair, but I presume you will be offering the same crisis advice to t’other Mr Brown who, if media reports are to be believed, you are engaged in advising. I am sure our current economic and social crises will also end with personnel changes, but in the meantime it would be good to hear the Captain of the Good Ship Lollipop take some responsibility for the desecration of our national finances and many of our institutions – not least the military and apologise on a regular basis. However, he just seems to go to ground. No comment on failures in Copenhagen (where he tried to give yet more of our borrowed money away) or about his enthusiasm for the live leadership debates ahead of the election. He’s probably too upset about the X-Factor single not being the Christmas Number One and consoling Simon Cowell instead!

  • Brian Hughes

    I was disappointed by the absence of “Continent cut off” headlines when the boats and planes were also having problems.

    The Eurostar and all cross-channel experiences would be so much nicer if we could fully engage with Europe and sign up to the Schengen agreement. Then all those officials currently checking passports could be diverted to some really useful border control work. And don’t get me started on the Euro!

    Still neither will happen in my lifetime, not with the British ‘everything’s broken but nothing must ever change’ Media having so much more power than any Government ever will!

    Merry Xmas…

  • Mark \’Elvis\’ Wright

    Having worked in crisis management myself it always amazes me how large organisations consistently mismanage an unfolding crisis.

    As with so many things in life the key word is ‘communication’. People want lots of it and often, even when the news is bad. It’s the difference between being perceived as reactive or proactive.

    To put this in a political perspective GB was for a long time perceived as being reactive (the ‘dithering’ tag) due to his seeming lack of communication. The public don’t like it and it’s a difficult tag to shake off. He’s since moved quite nicely to the proactive method in recent weeks and the results are there in the ever fluxuating polls.

    So to sum up…

    I don’t care what you say but just say SOMETHING!!!

  • Jane A

    I’ve never used Eurostar but was struck by good service from BA at the weekend. A competently de-iced plane home from Germany was delayed only an hour, despite Heathrow and the south being very snowy & much travel disrupted. Arrived at T5, bags collected, passport control navigated, out and in the car within 20mins of landing. Its a shame we only hear from the media about the disaster/anger/passenger misery scenarios…

  • Scott Perkins

    The reason why I won’t be travelling with Eurostar again is not because of the crisis, but how they dealt with it.
    Having had a ticket for a train for the 23rd for quite sometime, I was informed that it was only valid for travel for the 24th. Fine, I know they need to clear the backlog but when I asked a Eurostar representative what sort of compensation I can receive, he said nothing for now, check the website in the New Year. If Eurostar are going to delay people for 24+ hrs they need to make sure that they can reassure customers what they can get.
    I also asked why train were only running until 1800. The response was because of “health and safety reasons”. No actual explanation, they just hid behind a phrase that tells me nothing.

    Like I say, I have no problem with the crisis, these things happen. However, the way that Eurostar reacted to the crisis was unbelievable.

  • crookedmouth

    Crimbo Quiz/Oxford Entrance Exam – who said:

    “I know scepticism is fine, but are we really so cynical that we think any prime minister is going to make prior decisions to send British forces into conflict and wouldn’t rather avoid doing that.”

    Discuss the above statement in the context of the build up to the invasion of the Iraq war and with particular thought to (i) recent testimonies provided to the Chilcott enquiry and (ii) the principles of Crisis Management by AC Campbell as set out below:

    ‘The first is that you once you are in crisis management mode, you have to explain everything you are doing. There is no such thing as too much information or explanation at a time like this. The overall objectives have to be set out clearly, alongside the detailed plans by which they are to be met.’

  • Alan Quinn

    Couldn’t Eurostar have bought a couple of old Deltic diesels and used them to pull the electric trains out of the tunnel? It appears the trouble was on both sides of the channel as the snow is bad over there too.
    The media didn’t cover that.

  • Jude

    My sister works for Eurostar and it’s been hell on earth for them these past few days.

    I think as a country we need to sit back and actually re-evaluate what we class as a “disaster” and a “crisis”.

    A train breaking down and people being stuck is unfortunate, and a “crisis” in business terms. It’s not in humanitarian terms. Being stuck on a train for a day is nothing compared to what people have to go through everyday in places like Congo or Uganda where war, gunshots and fighting is a daily occurence.

    This was my biggest gripe amongst all the “victim” accounts. Everyone sounded as if the sky had fallen in around them. The people who work on board are hired indirectly by Eurostar and, as this has never happened before, were not aware of how to deal with it.

    One news report had someone complaining that passengers who worked in the services (police and paramedics) ended up being the ones taking charge instead of Eurostar workers on the trains. Well what would you rather, I ask you: passengers who’s day to day job involves managing a crisis taking charge or leaving it in the hands of a poor on board “waiter” to look after everyone’s health and social care?

    The other complaint was that the trains ran out of food. Of course they bloody ran out of food, the trains are only stocked for a single journey, not for 24 hours worth of people eating! If they did that, the trains would be a lot heavier, use a lot more fuel and ticket prices would be higher, which more people would complain about.

    I think my biggest gripe has been the fact that, rather than complain to Head Office, everyone is content to take it out on the people selling tickets and checking them in at the departure gate. Those members of staff can only help if they’ve been given the information, the amount of abuse they’ve been receiving from disgruntled customers is astounding and unacceptable.

    With regards to the person @Scott Perkins, information on those who had been affected by the disruption was in the newspapers on Sunday morning. I think that was a reasonable turn-around time in figuring out how to compensate those who’d merely missed their train: a full refund, a free return trip plus £150 compensation. A lot more than you’d get from most companies.

    As for the trains stopping at 18:00 for “health and safety” reasons, well I’m guessing the health and safety is to make sure that, should lightning strike twice, they’d have people stuck on trains for far far less time as half the staff wouldn’t have gone home by then. It’s not rocket science, the weather is worse in the evening, daylight assures the higher temperature will be kinder to the trains.

    If everyone just took a deep breath and thought about it logically you’d see that, whilst yes there was a lack of communication, considering this was the first time anything like this had ever happened to Eurostar, they’ve done the best they could with a baying crowd and a hungry media waiting for them to fail.

  • George Hall

    Did you see the BBC News at 6? Eurostar must have taken your advice … sense of things improving. shots of trains running, good interview with your man Mr Nunn, interviews with passengers seeming more hopeful than yesterday.

  • betty curtis

    Alastair

    It brings it all home to us that you can send out weather reports well in advance(TV,Radio News papers,Internet) warning of snow & freezing conditions but as we’ve seen it doesn’t stop people from travelling & trying to have the Christmas Holiday they planned.

    The Media shows no balance in any of it’s reporting. It’s cheap lazy journalism that’s got to run for days & days.
    I have read Political reports on Labourlist that days later is used by BBC on their main News Bulletins More & more it happens at weekends when they are struggling for News to cover 24/7
    If the Tory Media think they’ve got the Election result of a Tory win a Done Deal! I don’t think so! British people make decisions for themselves & it just might be that they ignore the TV,Radio,Newspapers,Guido,Dale, All of them pushing for a Tory Party that is out of step with the rest of the World Economies & we witnessed that they had NO POLICIES to deal with the financial tsunami that engulfed the whole World & it would’ve cost us dearly if we didn’t have Brown & Darling to lead us through the recession & although it will be slow we can see some signs of recovery it’s been nothing as destructive as the Thatcher years that ordinary people in the North of England & Scotland experienced.

    So! is it to be a change of Government for change sake because the media says it & the cyclical change must happen?
    REMEMBER THATCHER– The people of Scotland & Wales didn’t
    vote for her but she won because of the Tory vote in England got her elected. If people are not convinced that she & her idealism was bad for our Country & we should give Cameron a chance then just look at what he & his party will introduce–
    An Inheritance Tax windfall for millionaires–
    Once again The Tories will look after their own.

  • Matt

    Easy for Alistair to say the crisi will pass. Some of us are stuck in Brussels long term because we have to work here!

  • Nick

    I agree that Eurostar’s communications have been a disaster in recent days, and to rectify this I understand that they have drawn up a high calibre shortlist for new Head of Eurostar Communications;

    1. Damien McBride
    2. Jo Moore
    3. Derek Draper

    An announcement is expected shortly.

  • Rory

    Leaving aside the tackiness of having a top 10 brands list, as a former journalist and press officer, what experience do you have of crisis management?