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Case Study: How NOT to Handle Crisis Communications (Amtrak, Take Note)

On Monday July 3rd, I arrived at Penn Station to throngs of annoyed-looking commuters and vacationers. That’s nothing new except this time it was warranted; they cancelled all NJ Transit trains going to south. All Amtrak trains noted simply “delayed”.

Not wanting to sleep in Penn Station for July 4th, I bought a bus ticket and meandered over to Moynihan Station to wait for the bus or the train -- whichever came first. There, I had one of the best ice cream cones I’ve ever had at Davey's ice cream.

This pic is not about crisis communications -- it's just cute and relevant. to the holiday
Z and her stuffy celebrate the 4th of July

But I digress.

What I can say about how Amtrak handled it can be summed up in one word: shittily.

The lines for customer service were out the door. Amtrak staff was nowhere to be found. Questions were met with silence.

Then two Amtrak employees appeared and said that anyone going to Philly could go to gate 3a. No matter what ticket you had.

As you can imagine, chaos turned to insanity as people leapt over each other, pulled hair, and pushed others to the floor to get a coveted seat. Ok, not really, but our train did get full quickly and we were excited to go.

But then we sat.

And sat.

And sat.

And sat.

An hour later — with no announcement, warning, or human, a conductor appeared and tersely said “we're leaving”. Which literally elicited a round of applause. This was at 7 PM.

Is it a crisis? Yes? Then it merits crisis communications
Amtrak and NJ Transit cancelled trains -- calls for crisis communications

A 1-hour ride turned into 3 hours during which I reflected on what they could have done better to manage this crisis through crisis communications.

Things happen. In this case, signal problems. But there’s a good way to handle things. Amtrak did none of them.

  1. Communicate. That's why they're called crisis communications. Amtrak was literally silent.

  2. Apologize. All you need to say is: there are signal problems and trains are not running. We will update you as we learn anything new. We are sorry for the unexpected delays.

  3. Communicate, again. "They" say that setting expectations manages emotions, creates customer loyalty, and, in this case, decreases murderousness thoughts. It shows that you're empathetic to the plight of the customer, and that you're aware you're not meeting expectations.

  4. Follow up. I shouldn't have to call or email to ask what's going on during or after to request a refund. How about send out an email to folks who bought tickets for trains during those times and apologize, at the least. At the most, give a credit for a future train, coupon for a beer, refund tickets. Something that makes people feel heard and understood and shows them you value your business.

  5. Recap and plan for the future. Even if this isn't an external communication, you should chat with your team about what to do if this happens again in the future so you have a plan for crisis communications and best outcomes

Imagine if you treated a customer/client like this. Scenario:

1. A crisis occurs. You advise your client NOT to say anything. Until it's too late. They're inundated with calls, emails, angry mobs with pitchforks.

2. You're fired

Because Amtrak has a monopoly, they don’t think they need to have good customer service or proactively manage issues with good crisis communications. And they’re right — they don’t have to. But wouldn’t it be nice if they were a stand up brand that actually demonstrated good customer service and cared about their customer?

Because, after all, we could drive. Or take a bus. And next time, I just might.

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