The SNCF crisis communication : looking back at the Brétigny-sur-Orges accident.
Beyond the human tragedy, the accident of Brétigny-sur-Orges entails a major risk of image for SNCF (the French national railway company). This disaster involves one of the pillars of the company, one of its greatest strengths: safety. In the early hours following the accident, several associations of passengers indeed made the connection between the obsolescence of the rail network, the possible lack of maintenance, and the derailment of the train. Thus, the crisis communication implemented after this disaster became vitally important for the company. It is already a textbook case given its quality.
As soon as the accident is made public, all the key elements for a successful crisis communication management are gathered. The SNCF, embodied by Guillaume Pepy, showed empathy, mobilisation and transparency, both in its management of the crisis and in its related communication.
Only ninety minutes after the accident occured, Guillaume Pepy was in Brétigny-sur-Orges to see the extent of the damage and to share his first reactions with the media. He seemed extremely worried, with a trembling voice and tears in his eyes. This tangible emotion caused by the fate of victims and their families was soon translated into action. Immediate care and support were provided to the victims, including the implementation of an emergency psychological support unit, and the decision, well emphasized, to contact each and every passenger of the affected train.
SNCF has also deployed intensive efforts for a rapid resumption of the traffic, and set up replacement buses. All information was made available on sncf.com, through a dedicated arrangment. The company also announced that all splice bars of France would be checked as soon as possible.
Finally, in his initial response, G. Pepy insisted twice on the “transparency” that should characterize the different investigations to be conducted. Following the accident, three investigations were indeed initiated, one by the SNCF and RFF, to shed light on what caused the splice to break. Press conferences were held whenever new elements allowed a better understanding of the circumstances of the accident. Thus, only four hours after the accident, the hypothesis of a splice fracture was put forward by Guillaume Pepy. Pictures of the defective splice were published, and a twitter feed was set up to help relay the information.
Guillaume Pepy and the SNCF complied with all the golden rules of crisis communication. They were the first to communicate, largely occupying the media space. They adopted an attitude of empathy and full transparency. They handled the crisis and voiced it. But actions to prevent a similar crisis to occur and to rebuild the safety image of the company, necessarily affected by such an accident, remain critical.