Before you speak, feel: Expressing empathy for your customer can help build your brand

Photo courtesy Stephanie Brown

There was an interesting story that circulated around the local news outlets recently in the Washington DC area. A local special interest group, Collective Action For Safe Spaces, was set to push the DC City Council to ask Washington Metropolitan Transit Authority – known locally as WMATA or Metro (that’s the subway side) – to participate in a public service campaign to raise awareness about sexual harassment in public spaces.

Yes, that’s right. The non-profit went to the city council, not WMATA, to get WMATA’s help with the campaign. But that’s only part of the story (here’s a good explanation of why).

Collective Action for Safe Spaces smart public relations people had collected stories from WMATA customers about sexual harassment experienced while riding regional buses and the subway. And, they brilliantly used those stories to make their media push for a public service campaign more urgent. But THAT’s only part of the story.

WMATA’s official response has had me scratching my head for days. And, I actually put off writing this blog post because I wanted to really think about the strategy the might have been behind their media plan. WMATA’s press team chose to paint the problem of sexual harassment on their system as statistically insignificant. And, with more than 344 million trips a year on the WMATA system, they might be right – statistically.

And then, WMATA’s spokesperson suggested that the issue of sexual harassment came down to this: “One person’s harassment is another person’s flirting.” Yes, the WMATA spokesperson actually wrote that in an email response to a local reporter. Which, only seemed to give the story legs.

Ultimately, WMATA’s response lacked was empathy. Touting statistics seemed at best impersonal and tone deaf. Pointing the finger at someone feeling harassed seems at best a really bad idea. Everyone has a mother. Most of us have sisters, aunts, friends and significant others who are women. If the question for WMATA is whether  1-in-344 million is a problem, the answer is simple: Yes, it is a problem to that one person.

WMATA seemed to miss the fact that simply expressing concern does not imply endorsement or admit responsibility. Instead of appearing humane, WMATA reinforced its reputation as bureaucratic, combative and anti-rider.

Full disclosure here: I am a daily WMATA rider. I actually think the service WMATA provides is above average for a major metropolitan transit agency. I also think that WMATA’s communication program has taken leaps forward in the last year, especially when it comes to rider-level operational communication. I feel no antipathy toward WMATA or its communication team.

However, WMATA’s actions in this case help prove a key principle for transportation communicators. I think it is critical in an operational organization – like a state DOT or a transit agency – to always maintain a level of empathy for your customers. Before you talk about the major traffic jam, the upcoming road construction, the disruption on the subway line … think about what it feels like to be that person who is going to have to change her plans.

In other words, think like a human. Care like it matters. And, if you can do that,  you will see your organization’s profile improve.

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About Lloyd Brown

I am the director of communications for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. I enjoy running marathons and triathlons, playing guitar and spending time with family. My professional interest is in how social media and new technology shapes the communication relationship between government and the general public. I have a Master’s degree in Communications and Leadership from Gonzaga University in Spokane and a bachelor’s degree in Communications from Washington State University.
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One Response to Before you speak, feel: Expressing empathy for your customer can help build your brand

  1. Transpogal says:

    Lloyd, I think your restrainted tone is remarkable and way too nice. The comments made by the WMATA PIO were inappropriate and bordered on blatant sexism. Any one who has ridden the crowded trains and experienced inappropriate touching, comments, or group bullying – which is not an infrequent occurence – would have to wonder when (or if) the spokesperson is actually riding the trains. Perhaps he is just lost in the music on his (hidden, I hope) I-Pod?

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