Proofs of love: Crisis communication for the Wuppertal suspension railway

Wuppertaler Stadtwerke

Worst case for Wuppertal: the beloved suspension railway broke down for a whole year due to technical problems. The municipal utility Wuppertaler Stadtwerke, as the operator of the suspension railway, was wrongly held responsible for the breakdown. In order to de-escalate the communication, we combined traditional crisis PR with an emotional appeal to the population. To do this, we let the suspension railway speak for itself and set up a campaign to send small tokens of love to the people of Wuppertal.

Wuppertal – known all over the world for its suspension railway. It is not only one of the main means of transport, but also the city’s landmark. The people of Wuppertal are correspondingly proud of their suspension railway. They define themselves by it. Some Wuppertal residents even only chose to live here because of this railway. In short: Wuppertal loves its suspension railway. Then the absolute worst case scenario happened: the beloved suspension railway had to be cancelled for a whole year due to technical problems – a catastrophe for the whole city of Wuppertal.

The fact that the suspension railway was out of commission made the people of Wuppertal furious. All their anger was directed at the Wuppertaler Stadtwerke, the operators of the suspension railway. But it is not that simple. The reasons for the breakdown were largely due to technical defects for which the operator was not responsible at all.

In order to improve the deadlocked situation, the debate – and above all the question of whose fault it was – had to be de-escalated. Apart from the legal question, it also caused political turmoil. It was a year of local elections in North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW). At the same time, the entire population of Wuppertal had to be involved and appeased.

To this end, we took a two-track approach: On the one hand, we communicated with the stakeholders in a factual and clearly understandable manner to present the technical and contractual issues. On the other hand, we appealed to the whole city of Wuppertal emotionally.

We presented the relationship between Wuppertal and the suspension railway as what it is: a love affair. To accomplish this, we let the suspension railway speak for itself to the people: Unexpectedly sincere, authentic and, above all, extremely likeable. The suspension railway sent them small tokens of love.

We did ongoing work on just about all channels, on- and offline. This included press and social media work as well as press, online and social media monitoring. We maintained stakeholder communication with local and at state level politicians as well as with the authorities throughout the entire campaign.

Since many WSW employees also came under fire and were approached by acquaintances about the situation, internal communication was very important. We wanted to inform them, empower them and give them talking points. To do this, they were involved in creative measures such as videos and the like.

Ultimately, the ‘Proofs of Love’ campaign served as an emotional appeal to the residents: We provided reconciliation with a colourful bouquet of measures. They included distribution campaigns, raffles, CLPs (open letters), a participation campaign through Radio Wuppertal and the formats ‘Sags mit Axel’ and ‘Stein auf Stein’ (‘Say it with Axel’ and ‘Brick on brick’).

We quickly and sustainably de-escalated the reporting, differentiated between the question of blame and value contributions to solving the problem, and ultimately we helped to win back sympathy among various stakeholders. Criticism of WSW’s management decreased almost completely among political decision-makers, while subscription numbers rose again for the campaign finale.