A Trainload of Trouble

A recent news story that reads like a tale of espionage in otherwise staid and somewhat boring corporate Singapore has caught the attention of global media.

Concerned by possible defects in a multi-million dollar manufacturing deal between a Chinese-Japanese consortium that is building trains for Hong Kong’s underground rail system, reporters from indie news portal Factwire blew open a Singapore news story that almost never became one. Using drones and their own fact-finding, a large number of discreetly, canvas-covered trains were shipped in the depths of the night from Singapore to China for repair work.
For a number of years, Singapore’s once  proud and efficient Mass Rapid Transport system (the MRT) and Land Transport Authority have been bedeviled with not only frequent breakdowns; the trains themselves were shown to have issues; including but not limited to glass windows shattering without reason. When Factwire showed that 26 of the 35 trains the LTA and SMRT purchased from the consortium needed to be shipped back for repairs, the otherwise complacent mainstream media leapt into action to cover the breaking story. First, the cracks in the trains’ bodies were claimed by LTA to be not ‘safety-critical’ which then raised the issue of why then five trains have had their entire bodies replaced.
Shipping them at 3am in the morning was declared to be imperative so that daytime traffic flow was not impeded. And yet, netizens could show pictures of the trains, uncovered, being transported in broad daylight when they were launched with much fanfare several years ago. The flip-flops in official statements; the unholy rush to ‘clarify’ when the defects had been known for years; all have raised a raft of difficult questions; and accusations of a cover up or a ‘white-wash’ have been made.
This is a sorry tale of what can go wrong at the leadership level of a major listed company and a key statutory board when the following key leadership communication mistakes are made and the lessons are simply:

1) Public communications is now no longer the preserve of the corporate communication director.

In a fast moving news story, every single senior line manager or leader needs to have training to handle how they wish to communicate the information about specific situation – and long before it develops into an embarrassing situation. Poor internal communication can also mean that prior statements made have to be reversed, denied, or qualified, sometimes leading to a huge drop in trust as the U-turns can be perceived as disingenuous.

2) Do everything on a “Beyond Reproach” basis

I covered this key communication issue five years ago in CFO Magazine when referring to sporting ethics and claims. When declaring facts or making claims, senior leaders need to do so on a ‘beyond reproach’ basis. This means, the claims made must stand up to the scrutiny of shareholders, staff and the public. Currently, SMRT and LTA are facing a credibility issue on this story, owing to problems of their own making, and these are, but is not limited to, not informing the public of the ongoing defects story when they were first discovered years ago. Stating that passenger safety is paramount may be all well and good, but why the secrecy? And why are the trains needing seven years to be full repaired? And why is a fresh contract for more trains been awarded to the same consortium that built these defective trains?

3) Stop thinking about how to cover your butt, and start thinking of how to regain reputational equity

Traditionally in Singapore, obtaining information from official sources has often been on a trickle feed, need-to-know basis. The culture of non-accountability, and opaqueness is endemic. As such, issuing half-baked media releases do more harm than good. CXOs globally need to speak clearly and also state when they are unable to provide an answer if they have insufficient information. They should state their current actions steps and when a next news release will be due. In general, the public is far more forgiving towards mistakes than they are towards vague, corporate babble-speak, euphemisms and such devices geared towards covering up one’s mistakes than being candid. Imagine the pubic reaction when a massive explosion at the nuclear station on Three Mile Island in the United States (later to be immortalised on film in the movie The China Syndrome), was described as a “rapid oxidisation” instead.

4) Lead from the front, instead of only using spokespersons

At some stage, it is worthwhile, no, wait - essential, for the CXOs of major organisations to step forward to address the situation clearly, emphatically and authoritatively. It shows clear-headed leadership, and gives oodles of confidence to the stock market and staff in terms of clarifying the situation and next steps. Similarly, heartfelt, unequivocal apologies are also much more welcome than ‘discounting’ the problem, making excuses, qualifying past statements and so on – these just sound utterly mealy mouthed and insincere. At the time of writing, there has not been a single comment or statement by the relevant cabinet minister, or any CXO. This, in my opinion, speaks volumes of how SMRT and its linked masters have painted themselves in a corporate communications nightmare.
The lessons above are well-worth heeding for any CXO. 
David Lim is Asia’s Leadership Guide, and best known for leading the 1st Singapore Mt Everest Expedition. Since 1999, he has helped organizations build teams and grow leaders. Send him a note today at contact@davidlimspeaks.com to subscribe to his leadership e-newsletter.

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