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BLOG: Twitterverse lessons for CEOs from Singapore MRT breakdowns

Zafar Anjum | April 11, 2012
How do you face a crisis when it strikes your company, especially in these times of social media-empowered customers? Here are the lessons from Twitterverse from the recent MRT breakdowns in Singapore.

Between 13 December  last year and 15 March  this year, there were several instances of breakdown in the train services (MRT) in Singapore. 

The train services provider SMRT was pilloried by the 2.4 million commuters for these disruptions. The public outcry was so bad that on 18 December, Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong ordered an inquiry into the breakdowns.  

How could this happen in Singapore? The train breakdowns were seen as another event in the chain of unmitigated disasters in the republic's recent history: Flooding in Orchard Road, graffiti on MRT trains, and a dreaded terrorist escaping a high security facility.

How did the tech-savvy public of Singapore vent out over these disruptions on Twitter? This phenomenon was investigated by JamiQ, an IT company that provides a multilingual social media monitoring software.

It is interesting to note that until December 2011, commuters in Singapore had not experienced any major breakdowns in MRT services. The punctual train service in the city state was one of its proud emblems.

Once the breakdowns started, the pride turned to shame and disgust. The angry mob expressed their feelings in all possible fora, both online and offline. Their blood lust culminated in the resignation of the CEO of SMRT.

According to JamiQ, conversations about Singapore MRT were non-existent before 13 December. After that day, there was a spike in MRT-related conversations on Twitter. On average, there were 70 conversations about the train services, and the chatter reached to 1,000 conversations regarding SMRT. This was a 2500 percent jump in the chatter.

The negative sentiments were due to a host of issues. In December, the public ire was directed against the breakdowns. It was causing great inconvenience to the commuters. But as January arrived, the sentiments turned against the CEO of SMRT, Saw Phaik Hwa.

It took Singaporeans a week to collectively figure out "who was in charge to throw under the train". Once the public figured out who to go after, the witch hunt for the CEO started. She finally had to resign.

The chatter began to subside once Saw resigned from her post on 6 January. People felt that justice had been done.

Three months later, again there were breakdowns in the train services (this time, in the north east line, operated by SBS). However, by now, public rage was less as people had accepted the fact that train breakdowns were part of the deal in Singapore. JamiQ found that this time, public chatter was only 20-30 percent of the levels of conversations observed in December.

This is easy to explain. As people's expectations had been lowered in the wake of the December incident, the anger was less palpable.


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