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SMRT not “working on it” too well?

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By: Howard Lee

When tragic news broke about the two SMRT staff members who died at the track accident in March 2016, one of the first things that crossed my mind was an advertising campaign.

It might seem odd, even for a PR person like me, to focus on such things. Except that the campaign slogan was “We’re working on it” and it featured various SMRT staff members at work, depicted as doing their utmost to keep the train system running.

One of them featured a rail technician, who stayed in Punggol, slogging through the night so that he could keep at his job and provide us with a smooth and safe journey. Another was an assistant engineer, depicted as a father of two, which we can rightly assume to be sacrificing family time so that we can have a safe and reliable journey

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It was heart-breaking to think that two such staff members would never be able to go home to their families anymore.

At its best, the “We’re working on it” campaign is an attempt to appeal to our softheartedness, to solicit an emotional response following a long string of train breakdowns and systemic failures.

At its worst, SMRT was exploiting its staff for a cheap shot at public sympathy.

There is fundamentally nothing wrong with an emotional appeal. Brands do it all the time. As branding and marketing expert Seshan Ramaswami from SMU said, “It is easy to get angry at a faceless corporation which runs trains on tracks – a mechanical, impersonal object. So, showing behind-the-scenes photos of hard-working men and women working under difficult conditions… can help to soothe negative emotions.”

But the other edge of the sword for such a campaign rests on how it affects staff members.

“These ads may help boost the morale of SMRT operations staff… as they get criticised when trains break down, but never applauded when everything works well for most parts of the year,” said Dr Ramaswami.

That morale booster evidently had the fuel drained from it recently, when a whistle-blower account, carried by TISG and republished in other traditional and online media sources, indicated no less than a fair amount of anguish at what SMRT has done: Holding the rank and file ultimately responsible, while giving senior management a slap on the wrist, and the e-memo to staff taking a decidedly “zero-tolerance” tone towards the punishment.

With that one email, SMRT effectively flushed hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of advertising down the drain. Even worse, goodbye “we appreciate you, dear staff members”, hello back faceless corporation.

It doesn’t take a lot for your employees to bitch about you in front of family and friends. But to share your staff email with the world takes another kind of pissed-off. If anything, it shows a considerable loss of trust in SMRT among its staff, and that can never be a good position to be in.

For a brand is not about glitzy, heartstrings-tugging advertisements. A brand is a promise, and SMRT had promised to honour its staff members, valuing them for their unwavering contribution. That promise was spectacularly broken when it broke faith with its rank and file, delegating them to little more than scapegoats for senior management.

SMRT has yet to resolve all its performance problems, and it has to depend on its people to make it work. It will be a while before that level of confidence between workers and the faceless corporation can ever be established.

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