Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Tragedy at Lac-Megantic: Rail Chief's Fundamental Failure

There's been plenty of news coming out of a small town in Quebec after a train carrying nearly 80 tank cars full of crude oil derailed and immolated much of the town. Authorities believe 50 people died in the derailment, explosion and ensuing fires. As of this writing, only 38 bodies have been recovered and authorities fear some of those still missing may have been vaporized.

The railroad, Montreal Maine & Atlantic, is owned by a Chicago-based holding company called Rail World. The chairman of the company is veteran railroad man Ed Burkhardt. PR experts and regular folks have been severely critical of Burkhardt's decision to stay in Chicago for the first four days of the disaster.  His first visit to Lac-Megantic on day five went poorly.

The videos of Burkhardt's press conference and interactions with media are full of examples of what not to do. If you want to get a tactical view of some of the basics, you can see this very rudimentary article about the "9 Lessons Learned." Nothing is inherently wrong with the article except it doesn't diagnose the fundamental problem that led to the mistakes. If you have a disease, you want the doctor to treat the disease, not the nine symptoms it causes.

The fundamental problem with Burkhardt's communications is he is not focused on the audience. He's focused on himself. Here are some of the key quotes:
"I can imagine myself being in that kind of situation and I also would be grieving and I'd be very unhappy. I'd be very mad about the whole thing so I certainly understand the need to vent. But there comes a point where it's totally unproductive." Rail World, Inc. Chairman Ed Burkhardt, CNN, July 13, 2013
Unproductive for whom? In this case, clearly Burkhardt means unproductive for him. Except the audience felt his presence would be very productive so that they could channel their anger to the person they felt responsible for the accident. My sense is that Burkhardt scheduled 10 minutes for people to vent and wanted to move on. Except in a crisis, the audience decides when it's time to move on.
"I felt that my, that I was better trying to deal with insurance companies, contractors and the press from my office in Chicago rather than trying to do all of that on a cell phone in Megantic" Rail World, Inc. Chairman Ed Burkhardt, Edmonton Journal, July 10, 2013
It was more convenient for Burkhardt to work in his office than on the street in Lac-Megantic. Understandable, but irrelevant. The audience's town was on fire. At one point more than three dozen people were missing. The audience doesn't care how inconvenient it is for you to work on a cell phone, they want the head guy on the ground so he can move heaven and earth to help them in their time of need. Burkhardt spent four days sleeping in his own bed, when most of the residents of the town were out of their homes.

There is nothing more important for the audience than their problems. There is nothing less important to the audience that your problems. Burkhardt wanted to set the record straight at a time when the audience had no interest in the record, let alone the errors in it.
"I'm not a communications professional. I'm a manager." Rail World, Inc. Chairman Ed Burkhardt, CNN, July 13, 2013

The sad part is, Burkhardt said some very powerful things.
"This is awful. It's absolutely awful and very emotional to me when there are deaths and people out of their homes." Rail World, Inc. Chairman Ed Burkhardt, CBC News, July 10, 2013
Unfortunately, by the time he said them, no one was listening.

Bill Salvin

Sunday, July 7, 2013

Asiana 214: Crash Unfolds Across Social Media

I've written before about the importance of images when a crisis breaks. When Asiana Airlines 214 crash landed at San Francisco International Airport yesterday, it didn't take long for social media, especially Twitter, to kick into high gear. One of the things that was very clear watching the information cascade was how quickly images of the event went viral. The images taken closest to the source (the wreckage) went viral fastest. All of the images like the one below were taken by passengers who had survived the crash and evacuated the plane. This is reality today. We document our lives even when they may be in peril.

A couple of thoughts here. First, astonishment at the people evacuating the plane carrying their bags. I know people do irrational things during a crisis, but, wow, just leave the luggage. Second, mainstream journalists covering breaking news have to come up with a better way to have situational awareness of what the rest of the world is seeing and adjust accordingly. For example, NBC and CNN both were reporting witnesses who said the plane "cartwheeled" and that the "wing broke off." I'm not an aviation expert, but from the picture below, that simply can't be true. I understand not speculating. I don't understand not using basic observational skills.

All crises are human events and nothing connects humans like social media.  

Social media is also how people let their loved ones know they're ok after a disaster. Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg posted that she was supposed to be on flight 214, but switched to United. She apologized if people were worried. The man who posted the photo below did so from the emergency room where he was awaiting a CT scan. 

And once he posted the photo, the media angled for an interview. 

By the way, Mr. Levy was released from the hospital Saturday and he did the interview with CNN. 

This is how a major crisis unfolds today: Overwhelmingly fast and intensely personal. We watch from our living rooms, computer screens or smart phones and feel as though we're sitting with the passengers, sitting on the field watching the plane burn. 

I wonder how many companies and organizations are truly ready for what they will face when the tsunami of information crashes ashore. 

Bill Salvin