How one thin dime can trash a reputation

If the balance left on your Starbucks card is running low, and you’re 10 cents short of what you need to pay for your coffee, all you have to do is use cash to top up the difference between your current card balance and what you owe for that decaf-low-fat-extra-hot-no-foam-latté.  Easy peasy. But if you’re a ferry passenger on Canada’s west coast, and you’re trying to get back to your island home, and the balance on your travel card is 10 cents short of the required fare, that’s just not how it works. 

Imagine if your local Starbucks was run the way BC Ferries runs our local  ferry system here. Your barista would insist that you could NOT make up the 10 cent difference by fishing a coin out of your wallet. Instead, you’d be forced to add a minimum of $60 to your Starbucks card balance on the spot. If you didn’t have the $60, you’d be kicked out. No latté for you.

That’s essentially what a 20-year old woman experienced last month when she was told by a ferry ticket agent at the Nanaimo terminal that her pre-paid  Experience Card ( an electronic swipe card that’s used to pay for frequent ferry trips) was 10 cents short of the passenger fare for the ferry ride home to Gabriola Island, a scenic haven that’s  home to 4,000 residents about 20 minutes from Nanaimo.

Lucy Ramsey didn’t have a credit card, but she did apparently have some pocket change on that Sunday afternoon. She offered the BC Ferries ticket agent a quarter to more than cover the 10 cent balance owing on her card, but the attendant refused to make an exception. Kathy Ramsey, Lucy’s mother, told a newspaper reporter later:

“They said: ‘No, you have to either pay the full fare or top up the card with $60.’ 

“You won’t be able to print what I think of that.

“They never asked her: ‘Are you going to be okay? Do you have somewhere to stay overnight?’ It’s shocking.

“BC Ferries were sending a 20-year-old girl with obviously no money to spend the night in Nanaimo, and they didn’t care.”

Deborah Marshall, media spokesperson for BC Ferries, responded with an unfortunate phrase that will be quoted in all future media training workshops forever more:

Rules are rules.

“I know it was a small amount, but we do need to have a policy in place to draw the line somewhere.”

But a media firestorm followed the news that Lucy had been stranded overnight in Nanaimo by the ticket agent’s decision over one thin dime. BC Ferries slowly became aware that this PR nightmare was getting worse instead of better as the hours unfolded. The ferry corporation finally scrambled to admit that they could have better handled what they were  now calling a “misunderstanding”.

Yet even the president and CEO of BC Ferries, Mike Corrigan, told The Globe and Mail that he was “standing by” the ferry employee who handled this transaction, and that he did not plan to contact the passenger in question, adding that his company’s customer relations department was going to reach out to her.

And this time, Deborah Marshall told the media:

“I think this situation was unfortunate.

“There was a miscommunication that our staff was not aware that this woman didn’t have any other options to get home.”

Unaware that Lucy didn’t have any other options to get home?!

Is Marshall aware that Gabriola is an island, and the only “other options” for Lucy to get home that day was to start swimming the 3.7 nautical miles across an ocean channel?

BC Ferries has since announced that the young woman will now be “compensated with a couple of single ferry trip passes.”

This isn’t a free ferry pass issue – it’s a software issue. And more importantly, it’s a customer service issue gone publicly and embarrassingly wrong.

If Starbucks (dealing with exponentially higher numbers of daily swipe card transactions than BC Ferries will ever do on its island travel routes) can somehow figure out the technology that lets us top up our coffee card balances with the required cash when needed, why can’t the ferry corporation?

As a veteran of the trenches in corporate, government and not-for-profit public relations for well over three decades, I must admit to a certain frisson of perverse fascination whenever I encounter glaring examples of inept reputation management. Nothing gets PR folks higher on adrenaline than brainstorming and second-guessing what could have/should have been done to better handle a high-profile and entirely preventable public relations mess like this one.

Here are just a few tips that our most recent post-mortem came up with:

1. Be prepared:

Like many islanders, I find it simply impossible to believe that Lucy’s story was the very first time that a ferry passenger’s pre-paid Experience Card was pennies short of the required fare.

It likely was, however, the first time that a passenger’s outraged Mum went directly to the media to tell her story after her daughter had become stranded overnight. The ferry corporation should not have been surprised by the backlash against its own technological inability to accommodate such a common-sensical systemic issue. Think like a consumer thinks. Imagine how bad your decision will look in tomorrow’s headlines. Pay attention to customer complaints, staff feedback and grumblings on social media, which can serve as an immediate finger on the pulse of emerging issues. Monitor Google Alert, Skweal, Yelp, Twitter, Facebook, and G+ to learn what people are saying. Before a full-blown outcry starts percolating, a comprehensive plan to cover a broad public response (including and especially social media) should kick in immediately.  Proactive is always better than reactive.

2.  What you should never say:

“No comment.”

“Rules are rules.”  (Thanks to Deborah Marshall at BC Ferries for that one!)

3.  What you should say:

“We are very concerned about this issue, and regret that it happened.”

“Here’s what we’re going to do about it . . .”

4. Don’t ignore it.

This story just wasn’t going to go away by itself. Often, a poor organizational response can make even what seems at first blush to be a minor issue morph quickly into a massive PR nightmare. The worst thing any company can do is to ignore the situation or provide a canned response that does not address the issue head on. Instead of waiting for the next Lucy Ramsey to get stranded and make widespread national headlines, start an immediate mitigation plan to revamp the problem area, starting with instructions to the tech team to revamp the swipe cards.  Then tell us what you’ve done and how it will actually improve customer service in the future. And use social media to help tell us.

5.  Appear to give a damn.

The BC Ferries response seemed at best to be uncaring and arrogant, a deadly combination when it comes to destroying reputation and trust in the community.

Trouble is, BC Ferries operates a monopoly. There isn’t any other competing ferry service that can reasonably transport passengers to Gabriola Island or to any other destination along our coastline. BC Ferries may pay lip service to giving a damn, but they quite clearly don’t.

Still, as I used to teach in my Reputation Management and Crisis Communications classes, consider everything you do and say publicly as a deposit in the bank of goodwill out there.  Companies can weather even the most horrific crises if there’s already a significant balance in that bank account, one that’s been genuinely and deliberately nurtured over time.

And the opposite can be true, too: embarrassing yourself publicly with boneheaded decisions and poorly-thought-out responses can permanently damage reputation in ways you can’t even imagine right now. And on principle, allowing your media spokespersons to make a laughingstock of your company should just never happen.


See also:  more blog articles about Public Relations for the Ethically Challenged



5 thoughts on “How one thin dime can trash a reputation

  1. It’s me again with my same old saw: Why does anyone have to appear to give a damn?

    I’m not arguing with the advice that a business will be safer from criticism if they appear to give a damn. I am arguing, however, that it might be nice if companies DID give a damn! Or rather the people who make up the company, starting right from the top and going all the way down to rock bottom.

    Where was caring that night? Or maybe the question is where was the ability to demonstrate caring – when the question came up and the answer was Rules are Rules? Are we forgetting everything that makes us good?

    I started to say where was our compassion, which separated us from other animals, but even some animals can sense something is wrong – like stranding this young woman – and they’ll act on their concern. A herd of female elephants, for example, would not strand a member of the herd, the way the ferry employee stranded the would-be passenger.

    But all is not lost: studies on human infants show they have an innate sense of kindness and will favor someone seen to be doing something kind vs someone doing something unkind. So it’s not extinguished yet. We just have to allow ourselves to be aware of it and then to act accordingly.

    Companies need to set up a mechanism for how individual employees can use their innate sense of concern when there is an unusual and bad situation. They need to put in place ways the individual can address whatever it is and make it right, one way or another.

    Too loose? I’d rather too loose than too tight. I’d rather not take chances on stranding people with no way to take care of themselves. I’d rather not find myself pretending to care about people in situations which clearly call for concern.

    I’ll go with real caring any day. Why is this not true of the overwhelming majority of company management?

    • Thanks for your wise perspective, Bev. Had the ferry ticket agent or the media spokeswoman exhibited even a shred of that real caring, the company could have avoided what turned into an avalanche of bad press and public ridicule. I’m with you – a little bit of real caring goes a long way – but even if they didn’t give a damn, some basic PR awareness (like asking oneself “How’s this decision going to look in tomorrow’s headlines?”) can often make people stop before making stupid decisions. Thus the BC Ferries initial reaction (or non-reaction) caused a bad situation to look far worse.

      • It was indeed handled phenomenally badly! They couldn’t have done worse if they’d sat down and scripted it to be bad! Serves ’em right. Next time they’ll be wiser and take your course!

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