At 181 years old and with 350 thousand riders a day, the Long Island Rail Road is the oldest and largest commuter railway in the nation. Its aging infrastructure became apparent once again when service was halted last Wednesday due to what Newsday called the failure of “an ancient electrical cable.” Newsday’s Joye Brown also accused the LIRR of a “poor communications job” for stranding thousands of commuters and failing to inform them of the problem.
No one ever says they love the LIRR and no amount of good PR seems capable of changing our attitude. That’s why the LIRR’s mea culpa after its rush hour service debacle may not move many hearts and minds. “We apologize for the difficulty experienced by our customers as a result of Wednesday’s service disruption,” the LIRR’s statement said. “We regret that because we could not estimate when the signal power problem would be resolved or trains would again be moving, our communication efforts did not live up to either our customers’ expectations or our own standards.” The apology continued, “The LIRR is committed to providing safe, secure and reliable train service to our customers, and we will continue doing everything possible to improve our operation.”
This crisis response strategy begs the question of whether the railroad’s statement is just wasted words. Why does the LIRR’s PR team bother if an apology almost certainly won’t result in a more positive image–and can’t fix its infrastructure problems? After all, positive PR can only work when it follows positive performance.
The fact is the LIRR would lose even more respect and raise more public anger by NOT responding to its latest troubles. Like any utility, service, company or organization, it has an obligation to be as public and transparent as possible when something goes wrong. And while it must keep commuters better informed, given its problems and aging equipment it’ll be an uphill battle for the LIRR to significantly improve its public image through better communication. Realistically, can it ever hope to succeed? Yet, shouldn’t it keep trying? Your thoughts?