Toronto Transit Commission – How not to handle bad PR


The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) is dealing with a real PR problem right now. There have been a number of photos and videos taken by transit riders and posted on the Internet showing TTC workers sleeping on the job (such as in the photo below) or otherwise doing things that did not provide a positive image of the transit commission.

Newspapers, television and radio news programs have reprinted the images and run articles and news segments on this story.

Many employees of the transit commission aren’t pleased.

Background on the TTC

Here’s a bit of background for those who are not from Toronto. The TTC operates all of the public transit buses, street cars and subways in the city of Toronto and has the 3rd highest daily ridership of any transit system in North America. Only New York and Mexico City (both significantly larger than Toronto in population) have transit systems that carry more passengers. The TTC is an integral part of people’s lives here.

There have been a number of issues in the last few years such as transit worker strikes, fare increases, ticket and token shortages, and service issues that have led to growing negative attitudes towards the TTC and the services it provides. Most people would probably say that the TTC does a good job in general,  but there are certainly many areas for improvement, and the TTC hasn’t appeared to be the most responsive organization.

Now there are 3 parties with stakes in this situation. There is the TTC management, the TTC workers (drivers etc.) and the public.

The public have legitimate gripes with both the workers and the management. Now, it is only fair to state that the recent pictures such as the one above are not the key problem here, and it is clear that only a very small number of workers are behaving this way. But for an already frustrated public, these images — and they are powerful — are what is putting the frustration over the top.

The TTC has made a number of mistakes in handling this situation.

1. They have not come out and openly acknowledged the problems that their customers (the general public) faces regularly

This is the first step that any company should take when dealing with problems such as these. Acknowledging the problems does not mean accepting the blame, but it does begin a communication process about the grievances. It also starts to frame the key discussion points so that constructive dialogue can occur. Otherwise the result is increasing distrust and frustration from the customers who become further entrenched in their views. This can quickly lead to customer attrition.

2. The TTC itself is embroiled in it’s own (rather public) conflict between management and the workers

This is probably one of the biggest problems facing the TTC and it is the customers that are punished through drops in service, striking unions or other issues.  But management keeps their jobs and the unionized workers focus even more on their own grievances.

The net result is that not only do customers suffer, but their needs are basically ignored while the two groups fight it out.

Here’s part of a statement from TTC chief general manager Gary Webster to workers.  This is excerpted from this article in a local Toronto paper.

In a memo sent to all TTC employees on Saturday, Webster says, “I am becoming increasingly tired of defending the reputation of the TTC; tired of explaining what is acceptable and what is not; and tired of stating the obvious: that much of the behaviour being reported is, indeed, unacceptable.”

“Two weeks ago I said that the vast majority of TTC employees care about the organization and do a good job, but we can all do better. I asked everyone to respond well. Some of you did. Clearly, some of you did not.”

He is referring, of course, to the bus driver filmed taking an unscheduled coffee break in the middle of his route about a week ago, not long after a pair of ticket collectors were snapped sleeping in their booths.

The resulting video and photos have incited a maelstrom of discontent among riders already familiar with poor service from front line TTC workers.

“The culture of complacency and malaise that has seeped into our organization will end,” Webster warns.

“I hold all of management responsible to make this happen. Reviews and plans are under way to address systemic issues regarding customer service, but real change starts with you.”

Now the response from the union went something like this:

But (Bob) Kinnear (head of the union representing the TTC workers) blamed some of the issues frustrating both the public and TTC workers on transit managers and the commission board, which consists of politicians.

He also blasted chief general manager Gary Webster for his statement over the weekend that appeared to brand all TTC workers as deficient in their work ethic and attitudes.

“The worst thing for a good union is bad management,” Kinnear said. “If you have strong management and a strong union, you meet in the middle.”

Kinnear did ask for calm on all sides and to try to work together to solve the problems, but the finger pointing on all sides, particularly publicly just exacerbates the problem.

3. Some TTC workers started a very poorly thought through social media campaign

In a tit-for-tat move, some TTC workers created a Facebook group, called Toronto Transit Operators against public harassment.

The organizers of the group describe it’s purpose as follows:

This is a group where Operator’s [sic] can give suggestions on how to fight back to the recent photo and video harassment from passengers just looking to make trouble for us. And post photo’s [sic] of your own of passengers breaking the rules.

The “just looking to make trouble for us” line shows a complete inward mindset with no attempt to understand the real issues at hand. Also, the irony of the group name and that last sentence in the description seems to be lost on the group’s creators, although one group member, Mary Bruno Tidona, pointed it out quite plainly. See the image here for more info.

There were many people in the group who clearly supported the transit workers, but there were also a lot of  responses from people pointing fingers at politicians (local, provincial and federal), at the public, at their management, at “the system”, but rarely if ever at themselves. One comment that suggested that the few workers who do sleep on the job etc. get the boot was met with this response.

(click to enlarge)

If you’re going to use social media, at least understand that you’re engaging in a conversation with others and not an excuse making or brow beating exercise. That may work in broadcast media where the few control the message to the masses,  but in a Facebook group, for example, you’re only inviting ridicule.

4. TTC management have responded with old school thinking — repeat the obvious and add more features

On January 27, 2010, the TTC proudly proclaimed their commitment to customer service excellence. Is there anyone who would openly state they are NOT committed to customer service excellence? The web page on their site looks like a well crafted communication piece that announces a lot but doesn’t really indicate that they understand the core problems.

Front and center is the creation of a panel. The description is the following:

This panel will have representation from customers, the private sector, TTC employees and the public transit industry. The panel will review and approve a terms of reference then begin the work of assessing existing plans to improve customer service, advise on where the TTC should seek outside expertise to achieve its objective, conduct public consultations, and draft a customer charter or “bill of rights.” It is intended that the advisory panel will publicly report its recommendations by June 30.

Honestly, this is the best they can do in 2010? Create a panel and report back in 5 months? How about something more inclusive, using social media (effectively!), involving community groups in a series of TransitCamps starting at the end of February? Nope. Just old school thinking.

Beyond the panel, the web page also lists a number of new “features” they will add to the system. These include:

  • a beta of a new trip planning application
  • 50 new ticket vending machines across the system
  • improved plans to help customers and employees during subway delays
  • a new SMS messaging capability at all 800 streetcar stops
  • new video screens and better system status communication with ticket collectors and employees
  • a review of training programs for new employees and those going through re-certification

Now this is a nice list, but it’s simply a list of incremental features being added to the system. How will any of this – with the possible exception of better training — address the core issues of the public?

Incremental changes to the system, like incremental changes to a product, are not game changers. And while it is very difficult to make major changes to something as complex as a transit system in a short period of time, there is certainly a lot more that can be done to make the system more efficient and better address passenger needs.

I grew up in Toronto and used to love the transit system and it was only after I got married that I stopped using it regularly. And the few times I have used it since my marriage, I’ve found it excruciatingly painful and time-consuming.

I think the Toronto Transit Commission needs to understand there are alternatives for people and they will use them when the TTC fails to deliver appropriate value.  I’ve found an alternative to the TTC — same initials though — Take The Car. It does have it’s downsides, but it gets me where I’m going and I always know when it will depart and arrive.

Saeed

Tweet this article:  @onpm – Toronto Transit Commission – How not to handle bad PR – http://bit.ly/9swydU – #ttc #marketing

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