The rail transformation journey

An award-winning case study on how to effectively harmonise traditional and new media strategies

Image: SMRT

SMRT moves millions of people on a daily basis through its trains, buses and taxis. The North-South East-West Lines (NSEWL), Singapore’s oldest and longest MRT lines, are heavily used as they provide the fastest travelling connections across Singapore. In December 2011, two major disruptions, a day apart, rattled the confidence of commuters. To regain confidence, and to reassure commuters that SMRT rail services are safe, reliable, comfortable and commuter-centric, SMRT made a concerted effort to regularly inform and update commuters on its multi-year, multi-programme track renewal project. This rail transformation journey began on the North-South Line in 2013, and on the East-West Line in 2014, and has intensified as SMRT works hard to completing these track renewal works.

There were several challenges to the public relations effort:

  • As the rail system was never shut down, engineering staff had only 3.5 hours to perform maintenance and carry out upgrade and renewal works every night before service resumed the next morning.
  • Residents living near the tracks had to bear with noise (there are some 400,000 households living near the NSEWL tracks).
  • Changes to train service hours required commuters to adapt travel patterns.
  • Speed restrictions made their journey slower.
  • The complexity of the 200km long, 54-station rail network meant that only certain stretches of the system could be worked on at any point in time. Disruptions would continue to strain the patience of commuters.

SMRT needed to reach out to commuters to explain why the old system needed renewal, why the various programmes had to be undertaken simultaneously, and why it would take a few years to complete this massive project. It was critical to keep commuters updated on when and where works were being carried out so that interruptions to their travel patterns could be minimised.

The public outreach campaign sought to achieve the following:

Firstly, raise public awareness of the complexity and the scale of the track renewal works. Secondly, to foster understanding across a wide cross-section of commuters, young and old, to some of the inconveniences that would be necessary in order to carry out these works. Thirdly, to generate content across all media platforms in the four official languages and to use a range of techniques to maximise the outreach so that people could understand the benefits that would come with the upgrade and renewal project. Fourthly, to sustain the campaign over the entire period of the multi-year project while, as work progressed, trying to target specific stretches and specific communities along the network, and while working within the constraints of a very tight public relations budget.

Strategy

SMRT adopted a two-pronged approach, running two complementary projects concurrently. This approach was tailored to firstly educate the public about what was being done and the benefits that it would bring them, and secondly to restore their confidence in SMRT.

The Rail Transformation Journey campaign brought to commuters the reality that the network was very complex and that many repairs needed to be done at the same time.

The We’re Working on It campaign was an honest, heartfelt campaign that sought to humanise SMRT and to show that behind all the heavy machinery were people, working hard to make the MRT system better.

There were four messaging strategies – Persuade, Amplify, Defend and Restore – that we used across all our communications platforms. These were created specifically to address perception gaps and to reinforce the key message that SMRT was on track and making steady progress to improve service and reliability.

  • Persuade commuters that SMRT was optimising every single resource to renew the aging network as quickly as possible.  
  • Amplify the benefits that everyone would enjoy once the work was done, and help commuters see beyond the current inconveniences to the future state of safe, reliable and comfortable rides.
  • Defend the staff who were working hard to make sure the multi-year, multi-programme track renewal project would be completed on time.
  • Restore the public’s trust in SMRT as a best-in-class public transport operator with a commuter-centric focus in all of its programmes and activities.

SMRT ran two projects concurrently, one informative and one emotive, but understood that the We’re Working on It campaign would need to evolve beyond the track renewal and upgrade project to demonstrate that SMRT was committed to continuously improving public transportation service and reliability in Singapore, and that, more importantly, it would need to evolve beyond the original tagline. It has since adopted the tagline Your Journey Matters.

Execution

With an audience from different walks of life and varying media consumption habits, SMRT employed an integrated strategy to optimise outcomes with limited resources. Four specific stakeholder groups were identified for engagement by analysing their needs, identifying the communication media that best reached out to them and creating content that optimised the four messaging strategies.

“With an audience from different walks of life and varying media consumption habits, SMRT employed an integrated strategy.”

Grassroots and community engagements. Before embarking on works along identified stretches where track renewal work was taking place, SMRT conducted pre-launch consultation sessions with advisors and grassroots leaders on potential areas of concern and maintained channels of communications to allay concerns and raise awareness. Site walks were organised and targeted direct mailers and letters were sent to residents. SMRT senior management also distributed information packages to commuters one week prior to early closure of stations affected by track renewal work.

Media engagements and immersions. SMRT also proactively engaged news agencies to generate positive stories on track renewal work. Special access to witness the works were granted to allow media representatives to generate feature stories. A comprehensive primer on SMRT’s ongoing track renewal effort was distributed to the media to seed greater awareness of the scale and scope of the projects.

Out of home communications. By harnessing existing media and advertising platforms within SMRT’s Out of Home network and its MRT station communications network, SMRT was able to generate extensive publicity through in-station public announcements, digital media platforms, large format posters, print advertisements, in-train panels and notice boards.

Optimising new media platforms. With more than 100,000 followers, the SMRT Facebook page became a key channel to engage the commuting public. SMRT’s YouTube channel and Twitter account complemented this online activity while progress updates via SMRT’s Corporate Website were made available. Complex issues relating to the renewal project were simplified through engaging infographic videos, and clarified through the SMRT Blog and through the Customer Relations portal on SMRT’s Facebook.

Results

SMRT has sustained keen media interest in its Rail Transformation Journey since 2013 when it first embarked on this campaign. SMRT has used a range of traditional and new media platforms to keep the media engaged, and this has resulted in more than 100 articles and features through print and broadcast media from 2013 to 2016, generating a PR value of over $3.6 million. In 2016, SMRT generated $1.2 million in public relations value for both its Rail Transformation Journey and We’re Working on It campaigns. This does not take into account the efforts SMRT put into and the immense benefits it reaped from its accompanying social media campaigns.

SMRT has used a range of traditional and new media platforms to keep the media engaged.”

The key result is that commuters are now more keenly aware of the key programmes undertaken as part of SMRT’s Rail Transformation Journey, in particular the sleeper replacement, re-signalling and third rail replacement programmes. The extent to which commuters understand and recall these programmes, and the degree to which they recognise that they take time to implement, has improved as a result of SMRT’s public awareness efforts. There was also greater acknowledgement that SMRT was working hard to repair the network. SMRT has sought the patience and understanding of its commuters and, in large part, the response has been positive.

The number of complaints arising from inconveniences caused by SMRT’s track renewal works has decreased. In particular, the number of complaints relating to noise, speed restrictions, ride comfort, delays and station dwell times dropped significantly. This can be attributed to the extensive public education and outreach efforts undertaken though the Rail Transformation Journey campaign, and to the accompanying We’re Working on It campaign which sought to appeal to the sentiment of commuters.

SMRT’s campaigns have created some advocates in the community. There are more positive messages being posted online in support of SMRT staff who have been working hard behind the scenes to complete the various track renewal works. Quite significantly, Nielsen surveys conducted from 2014 to 2016 have shown that customer satisfaction levels have improved, notwithstanding SMRT’s efforts to increase the pace of track renewal works.