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


  1. Some really good points here Bill. I'm sure I will reference this during exercises with clients. I'm always looking for examples showing what not to do.
    Great line: "There is nothing more important for the audience than their problems. There is nothing less important to the audience that your problems."

  2. Thanks for reading and for commenting, Mark. This will make for great discussion in training sessions. Glad you liked it.

  3. William Read (via LinkedIn)July 18, 2013 at 8:07 AM

    I wonder how many similar trains, with the same cargo, transit the world every day... without problems. Let us await the results of the thorough investigation into this tragedy, then ensure that it does not recur, anywhere.

  4. Thanks for reading and for commenting, William. I agree with you that the talk of blame is premature here. When Mr. Burkhardt said, "we have some responsibility here", that is an absolutely true statement, but it played more like an evasion than a statement of the obvious (their train = some responsibility). I agree that folks need to wait for the investigation results so that they fix the right problems. The communications issues I address here, sadly, are fairly easy to diagnose.

  5. John Eeten (via LinkedIn)July 18, 2013 at 9:00 AM

    It has been some 35 to 40 years since the legislation of the number of Tank Cars being together on a particular train was enacted for the public's safety. Maybe, if Canada had the same done up there, there may not have been such a problem. (Crescent City, IL.) In the early to mid 1970s, there were several derailments where tank cars were either part of the problem or the exposure to the problem due to the shear number of the group.

    I also grew up on the CB&Q, now BSF. I did train with the UP for Locomotive Fires. I do know the statements made about the Fire Department causing the accident are erroneous and the full investigative report will clear them of any wrong doing.

    People like this gentleman, and that is a very loose term, should ride with Fire Departments and see how we treat people in their worst times. Thanks.

  6. John, thanks for reading and for commenting. From a cause of the derailment point of view, I'm quite unqualified to weigh in. Although it's hard for me to think the accident would have happened if the train had been manned or if there was better automation that allowed for the train to be stopped remotely (like a drone can be flown from far away).

    As for Mr. Burkhardt's perceived lack of compassion, I think it stems from something you hit on and that's putting himself in a position to see how fire departments work or other emergency responders. He should have his staff train with fire departments so that they understand how things will unfold when disasters like this occur. Communications training would help here, too.

  7. What a horrible tragedy. And people are worried about nuclear energy.

  8. Great analysis Bill! I winced every time he spoke because, even when he said things that sounds empathetic-y (and they may have been totally true), it still sounded a little hollow and self-centered. I also loved when he began to attack the media during the interview. I'm sure it will be a fresh new addition to your media training library!

  9. Henry Balikov (via LinkedIn)July 19, 2013 at 3:12 PM

    Who failed to get a credible spokesperson at the scene before day 5?
    Who prepped this guy? His talking points and approach did not address the concerns of the community.

  10. Exactly right, Henry. Day 5? Completely unreal. Thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment.

  11. Rick Straitman (via LinkedIn)July 19, 2013 at 3:18 PM

    Bill, Apparently, this guy learned nothing from the BP CEO's pathetic appeal, "I want my life back."

  12. Rick, great to see your name pop up. Hope all is well. I interviewed Burkhardt back in my reporting days in Wisconsin. He came across as confident to the point of arrogance. He talks about the rail company's safety record as though this was a routine derailment. This is an epic disaster for which he is unqualified to manage.

  13. Brian Kilgore (via LinkedIn)July 20, 2013 at 8:06 AM

    Salvin at least provides us with a highly edited video so we can hear some of what Mr. Burkhardt said, and hear him say it, regardless of editing.

    Characters like Slavin and Balikov make their money "training" executives in crisis communication.

    What both should be saying is, "note how Burkhardt not only provides a quick answer to a question, but he goes on with an explanation. Note how he's aware of issues, such as him coming to Megantic, and brings this up himself, making it clear, for instance, that his railway company execs were in Megantic as soon as possible after the crash."

    Someone should give Slavin a lesson in the television news editing process. Inserting clips from B-roll over top of sound recorded at a different time confuses audiences, including apparently, him.

    So in real life, the upset townspeople in many of the shots were not listening to, nor reacting to, Mr. Burkhardt's words. Government officials did not bother setting up speakers so townspeople could hear and see what happened between reporters and officials. Townspeople gathered around news truck to watch and listen to feeds from cameras to the trucks

    And Burkhardt just walked into the scene one afternoon.

    And a good crisis consultant would have pointed out how media try to put words into people's mouths, and Burkhardt knew enough to correct reporters

    So, readers of LinkedIn -- study Mr. Burkhardt and hope that if you ever have a client in a big crisis, you have a client with the courage and honesty and common sense of Mr. Burkhardt

  14. Hey, Kilgore...if you're going to call me a character, at least get the name right. It's Salvin. Not Slavin. Most people, though, simply call me Bill. Also, pretty sure I'm not confused about the television editing process. I worked as a TV reporter for nearly a decade. Your objection to the edited video misses the point of the piece. You are never in a crisis alone. In this case, the railroad isn't even the main character in the crisis. As for how I make my money, it appears to be the same as you. How is that relevant here?

    But, back to Burkhardt. In his own words, he's a manager not a communications professional. He's not a good enough manager to know he needs to hire a communications professional. Or a team of professionals.

    I make no judgement on Brukhardt's common sense, courage or honesty. My judgement was limited to his abysmal efforts at communicating. In fact, with some minor adjustments to his phrasing and some different staging, this could have had a very different, more positive outcome. In a crisis of this magnitude there is a very narrow margin between success and failure. I'm sure, though, a consultant with as much gray hair as you already knows that. Thanks for reading, Sincerely, Slavin.

  15. Brian Kilgore (via LinkedIn)July 21, 2013 at 10:04 AM

    Sorry I spelled Salvin wrong.

  16. No worries, Brian. I've been called worse. I really do appreciate your reading and your comment.

  17. Kemal Saiki (via LinkedIn)July 21, 2013 at 10:06 AM

    I could not help but compare this situation with the 12th July railway accident in France, when a passenger train, going 137 kmh, derailed in the station of the city of Brétigny-sur-Orge, resulting in 6 deaths and 200 wounded. The CEO of SNCF, the French rail company, was on the spot a mere two hours after the accident while rescue efforts were ongoing. In a press conference held the next day, he stated "We are responsible for the life of our clients." and that SNCF assumed full responsibility for the accident. His visit was soon followed by those of France's Prime Minister and of the President of the Republic. Crisis management and crisis communications went in high gear, with reguar updates on the rescue progress, measures taken to find out what happened, information hotline, support to victims and affected community, etc.
    Indeed managers are essentially that, managers, but communication is part of their corporate responsibilities, including planning. On the face of it, it looks like the Rail World company was caught flat-footed, with little or no crisis comms contingency plans which could account for the sluggish response of it top management. Corporations are too often self-centered, not realizing that in such circumstances it is not about them but about those who are affected by their activities, decisions, policies. What is at issue here is not the moral character, honesty or the fortitude of Mr. Burkhardt but the fact that he comes across seemingly more focusing on the impact this tragedy has on him, his company, than on the affected community.
    Reminds me of Tony Hayward, CEO of BP, who infamously said, at the time of the 2010 Gulf oil spill "I'd like my life back"... Well, do not worry about him, he got it back all right. Although ousted from BP after the Deepwater Horizon spill debacle, it was reported, in 2011, that Hayward had been hired by Glencore International, the world's largest commodities trading company, to oversee -what do you know?- environment and safety and that his venture firm, Vallares, merged with a Turkish oil firm to create a $4.5 billion company with operations in northern Iraq. Hopefully, if they have a spill, they would know what to do now...

  18. Kemel, thank you for reading and for commenting. I'm not familiar with the French rail case you mention, but it sounds like the CEO hit the right tone as opposed to the Rail World Chairman. You are right, it's not about the company or its people, but about the people of the town and those impacted by the accident.

  19. Brian Kilgore (via LinkedIn)July 21, 2013 at 10:08 AM

    Regarding >Who failed to get a credible spokesperson at the scene before day 5? <

    The president of the MMA railway was in Lac Megantic Sunday morning. He was accompanied by other senior management (it's a small company) and some "workers." They managed to get a look at the five locomotives, but only for a few minutes, before the cops chased them away.

    And they were never allowed anywhere near the crash scene.

    If you want to complain about something, why not complain about reporters who did not interview senior railway officials who were in town.


  20. Brian, all crises are human events and all journalism is about how an event or issue impacts people. The impact was to the people of Lac-Megantic, not the railroad. The railroad people have a place in the story, but secondary to those more directly impacted. Especially while the town is on fire and 1% of the population of the town is missing. I did see Robert Grindrod's name in several articles early on and he did ok. One thing I think the company did well was issue news releases in both English and French. While it would have been ideal to have a French speaker in Lac-Megantic, the French news releases were fine.

  21. This comment has been removed by the author.

  22. Ed Shiller (via LinkedIn)July 21, 2013 at 10:18 AM

    Unfortunately, Burkhardt added fuel to an already raging controversy. Here’s why:

    • Waiting nearly five days before visiting Lac Megantic. He should have visited the town immediately following the accident, regardless of the important business that he said kept him in Chicago.

    • Speaking only in English in a francophone community in which many residents do not understand English. He should have brought along an interpreter. He might also have delivered a phrase or two in French.

    • Asserting that "we, employees, our board and management, are all victims of what happened." This statement made Burkhardt appear insensitive to the suffering of the people of Lac Megantic.

    • Attempting humor when asked about how wealthy he was by proclaiming “A whole lot less than I was Saturday.” The question seemed to come out of left field (though given the circumstances, one would expect the media to pursue any avenue of attack), but deflecting it by attempting clever humor only added to a perception of callousness. I don’t believe that his financial worth is really any of our business, though for Burkhardt to say this would probably be worse than the answer he actually gave. An alternative might have been to say something along the lines of: “Right now, my concern is about the wellbeing of the people of Lac Megantic and how we can rebuild this community.” Ok, I admit that this answer is also a deflection insofar as it does not explicitly address the question about Burkhardt’s wealth. But I would choose it as the lesser of evils.

    • Blaming the accident on the train’s engineer. Burkhardt said the employee improperly set the brake, thus allowing the unattended train, carrying a large quantity of crude oil, to roll at increasing speed into the center of town, where it exploded. Burkhardt also announced that the employee had been suspended without pay. Whatever Burkhardt’s initial beliefs about the cause of the accident, he should have not speculated publicly about them. Finding the cause and fixing responsibility is the job of the formal investigation. Accusing the engineer only made it appear that Burkhardt was looking for a scapegoat.

    • Criticizing the local fire department for a lack of expertise in fighting train fires. This added to the perception that Burkhardt was looking for scapegoats.

    • Berating a reporter who asked him why had hadn’t apologized for the accident. Burkhardt, now clearly annoyed, chastised the reporter for not listening to the many earlier apologies he had made, and then issued what he called another “abject apology.” What really matters here is that Burkhardt’s behavior did not project true remorse, thus diminishing the credibility of the apology. He would have been much better off if he had simply answered the question along the lines of: “I offer my deepest condolences to the families of those who perished in the explosion and apologize to the community of Lac Megantic for this terrible tragedy.” It would have been even better had he said this in French: J'offre mes plus sincères condoléances aux familles de ceux qui ont péri dans l'explosion et présente mes excuses à la communauté de Lac-Mégantic pour cette terrible tragédie.

  23. Ed, that's a pretty good analysis. Especially the part about the railroad claiming that they are victims. There's no scenario short of terrorism that I can think of where that would be true and it's certainly not true in this case. Thanks for reading and for such an astute read on the event.

  24. Kemal Saiki (Via LinkedIn)July 22, 2013 at 5:13 PM

    Basic tenet of effective PR: "Don't tell me about you, about how beautiful you are or sad or whatever. Tell me about what you can do for me, my family, my community"...

    Bill, here is a link on French rail accident:

    One would have thought that corporations, entities, engaged in activities that may present risks, possibilities for mishaps, that interface with, could impact the public, would have ready to use contingency planning and check lists for crisis management and crisis communications, a systematic and systemic approach to handling adverse events. This would be particularly pertinent for activities in transport, oil, chemical, nuclear, manufacturing, agrofood, health care, finance and shareholder relations, etc. Planes crash, trains derail, cargo and cruise ships can be stranded at sea, burn or sink, chemical plants and refineries explode, pipe-lines leak, nuclear plants spew radio-activity, cows are mad, horse- meat passed as beef, garment factories crumble or catch fire, scandals, bankruptcies, share-holder rebellions, consumers boycotts occur yet, there have been a number of catastrophes and serious incidents when response has been often too little, too late, when not abysmal: Carnival and Costa Concordia cruises, BP spill in the Gulf, Bangladesh garment industry serial catastrophes, Abercrombie and Fitch no-fatsos-need-apply remarks, chemical plant explosion in Texas, Fukushima nuclear response, further back in the past the Bophal insecticide plant disaster, etc., etc. In several instances, it looked as crisis and communications management came almost as an after thought, ad hoc, haphazard, driven by the agenda and not trying to correct, contain or shape it. Indeed, hindsight is always 20/20 and experience is what one acquires right immediately after one needed it most but aren't any post-mortems conducted, analyzed and lessons learned? Even the military, which seems to have endless contingency plans all the way down the alphabet is not immune to bloopers, blunders and institutional amnesia ... Is that because notwithstanding what PR practitioners like to think and corporate mission statements and declarations of intent, Public Relations and Information are still considered a somewhat ancillary, not strategic function, not at par with, say, finance or human resources? Or is it that PR professionals are almost invariably considered the bearers of bad news, that their role is often to tell the emperor he has no clothes and have to repeatedly insist, as Shakespeare's messenger to Cleopatra who threatened to treat his eyes as balls, "Gracious madam, I that do bring the news made not the match"?

    That reminds me a cartoon I saw few years ago: two men in lab coats, clipboards in hand, wearing hard-hats are chewing the fat, walking in a landscape of pipes, cables, control pannels, adorned with triangle nuclear symbols. As they stroll they pass next to a large glass door set in a wall, with a little hammer next to it and a label that reads "In case of accident, break the glass". Behind the glass pane stands a well-groomed, brylcreemed man in a pinstripe suit, shinny loafers, and a big, fixed, toothy grin plastered on is face, holding a briefcase on which is written "Public Relations"... Is that still the perception of what PR and Crisis Communications is all about? Breaking the emergency glass and sending the PR hack out there, with a smile and a shoeshine, on a wing and a prayer? Any two cents?

  25. Isabelle Lavoie (Via LinkedIn)July 22, 2013 at 5:13 PM

    I am a french speaking communicator from Montreal and I can tell you that the way this crisis was handled by MMA will be a case study in all universities, in the province of Quebec at least, about what NOT TO DO in a crisis.
    For the french release that was issued during the following days of the tragedy: the translation was done by a computer...if you want an easy tip: NEVER do that. It aligns french words but the sentence had no meaning at all. It make us all laugh in a not funny at all situation.
    Also, about the spokespersons, at one time they were three different individuals who were giving interviews with NO preparation at all.
    About the president coming to Lac Megantic, five days after, I was sure that he would be prepared to do a press conference after all the mistakes he had done since the beginning of this terrible event. NOT AT ALL. He did not do a press event...he walked on the street and he answered journalists questions in a scrum. Again, with no preparation, no key messages, etc. Until then I was giving him the benefit of the doubt but then I concluded that this guy - and unfortunately the MMA company - look like they come from the Republic of Banana...sorry for my US communication colleagues.

  26. Brian Kilgore (Via LinkedIn)July 22, 2013 at 5:14 PM

    Contrary to Ms. Lavoie's comments, the president of the railway did not arrive five days later. He was in Meganitc on Sunday.
    The crash was Sunday, Monday is one day later, Tuesday is two days later, Wednesday is three days later.
    It was three days after the crash that the CEO of the holding company that owns the railway arrived in town. The president was already there. Look in pictures for a big man wearing a blue shirt, chewing gum.

  27. Kemel Saiki (Via LinkedIn)July 22, 2013 at 5:15 PM

    I could not agree more with you on the issue of automatic translations which are invariably pathetic and often accidentally hilarious. While such practice is borderline admissible for producing instruction leaflets for cheap gadgets and furniture soon broken and discarded, it is not acceptable for communicating, in its own language, with a community affected by a tragedy of such magnitude. This cavalier, off handed attitude, smacks of shoddy communication work, utter contempt and flabbergasting lack of professionalism. This is akin to dismissing as irrelevant the affected community and cracher sur les tombes des victimes, spitting on the graves of the victims. Looks like the railway company and its management are the gang that can't shoot straight.

    PS. On a lighter note, talking about translations from hell, you may want to check this link:

  28. Kemel Saiki (Via LinkedIn)July 22, 2013 at 5:15 PM

    You are providing details that a mere rubbernecker would'nt easily know and your postings seem to strongly advocate for MMA Railway and its CEO. May I pray ask if you are connected in any way with the company and/or any of its executives? No professional links? I am not being nosey, simply asking what I think is a legitimate question...

  29. Isabelle, thanks for the insight on the computer translation issue. Not speaking French, I wouldn't be able to identify that. They get points for trying, but as with most things with this particular railroad company, they seem to do everything on the cheap. Look at their website. The Chairman travels to the site of the disaster seemingly with no staff, no communicators. They staff the train with one person, and then with no one when that one guy needs to get some sleep. Thanks for reading and for weighing in here.

  30. Kemel, excellent question. Over to you, Brian...

  31. Loraine Dumas, BBA, MBA (via LinkedIn)July 23, 2013 at 4:55 AM

    Thank you Isabelle for setting the record straight on the timeline. It appears as though Mr. Kilgore is partial in this matter, as stated by Mr. Saiki. We may be wrong, but....

    To enhance on what Isabelle wrote....MMA seems at first to have treated this tragedy as though it was an annoyance. When they finally realized this was big, they did not even try to speak to the town's population properly....getting a French speaking translator to work with them would have been easy, and probably cheaper than anything that will fall to them from this missed opportunity. And, not being on site, officially, for 5 days, is probably a perfect example of MMA's arrogance towards what happened.

    MMA was not prepared for something like this happening, and from the way they reacted to this tragedy, I am tempted to assume they would have not done differently if this had happened in the States or in Ontario. Language, although badly handled, was not the issue.

    Textbook crisis management should have had a press release out on the Saturday morning, and their CEO on premise on the Saturday, Sunday morning at the latest, with a planned and staged press conference, at minimum. The CEO does not speak French? Have an interpreter follow him everywhere so every question and comment can be accurately conveyed and answers communicated. I believe this guy was not prepared because he did not have the right answers...and I don't mean 'lies' or 'no comment', I mean talking about the tragedy in terms of the real victims, and what MMA will be doing for them and for the town; not deflecting blame to others; not searching scapegoats...certainly not making humorous comments about what happened.

    PR and crisis management is as much about cultural sensitivities as it is about stating the facts....big miss...

  32. Brian Kilgore (via LinkedIn)July 23, 2013 at 4:56 AM

    The Dumas piece is so full of errors that it's not worth wasting any more keystrokes on.

  33. Very well said, Loraine. You're right that language was not the issue here. I didn't so much get that they treated it as an annoyance, but as something routine, like a simple derailment in a rail yard or something minor like that. Maybe "routine" and "annoyance" are synonymous here.

    Instead of blaming the firefighters, perhaps a thank you would have been in order. As I wrote in the post the focus of MM&A's response was off. It was centered on them and the people in the company as though the crisis was about them.

    The more I read these comments and look at the response the worse MM&A's handling of the event looks. The company did have news releases out on the derailment Saturday and one on Sunday. Then nothing else. They simply stopped communicating except for the disastrous interviews and news conferences/scrums. Their lack of focus on the proper audience allowed for them to miss an essential truth: This crisis is something done to the people of Lac-Megantic by MM&A over which the people in the town have no control.

  34. Guy Versailles, ARP, FSCRP (via LinkedIn)July 23, 2013 at 9:40 PM

    I have tried to understand where Brian Kilgore is coming from on this issue. Brian published a blog post on July 12 ( ) where he makes this one basic point: Ed Burkhardt is an honest man who went to Mégantic without any specific media training or preparation, and answered honestly the questions that were put to him

    Quotes from his post:

    «Burkhardt accepted responsibility for the train derailment, saying that it was pretty obvious to him that the MM&A Railway was the guilty party; it was their run-away train that caused the disaster.»

    « The very fact that Ed Burkhardt showed up in person in Lac-Mégantic was exceptional and extraordinary.

    MM&A Railway did not send a Vice President to handle the bad news. Burkhardt himself showed up without PR people. He showed up without corporate lawyers (who would have advised him to say as little as possible at the very least, and who at most would have advised him not to take any responsibility until the final TSB report is issued, many months from now).

    Burkhardt arrived in town on the Wednesday afternoon. He then walked down the street, looking for the crash site and people who wanted to talk. Reporters recognized him and a makeshift table to hold microphones was set up in the middle of a city street. Burkhardt answered questions from the media for 43 minutes and did not stop until every question was answered.

    There was no “Media Kit” or other handout PR materials to explain (in very carefully worded and lawyer-vetted language) what happened, in what order, according to the MM&A Railway’s version of the accident. There was an astonishing and complete lack of “PR spin.” »
    (end of quotes)

    I do not take issue with the question of Mr. Burkhardt's honesty. I do not know this man and cannot judge his character. However, as we say in French, « l'enfer est pavé de bonnes intentions » (hell is paved with good intentions). Being honest simply is not enough in such a crisis. Being prepared and being professionnal are also of Paramount importance. And MMA and Mr. Burckhardt were neither in this situation. As a result, their situation now is worst than it could have been. All of the reporters' tough questions were to be expected, as well as the highly emotional response by the population and local officials. While remaining completely honest, a minimal preparation before publishing a machine-translated press release or just venturing out on the street would have prevented several blunders.

    This is the real issue here, not Ed Burckhardt's character.

  35. Bob Wade (Via LinkedIn)July 23, 2013 at 9:42 PM

    To get back to Bill's original point (somewhat lost after Brian's snipings) - Burkhardt should have been on site from day one. That has certainly been a lesson in the UK after the series of train disasters we had from 1999 onwards into the 'noughties'. The Ladbroke Grove train disaster in London left 31 dead after a signal failure led to a collision between two commuter trains (I was in the media response team for the investigators, so was one of the 'good guys' for a change!). At the time, the rail network had been privatised and was owned by Railtrack - they were in charge of providing and maintaining all the UK's track on which private Train Operating Companies (TOCs) operated. Despite Railtrack being responsible for the signal in question, just like Burkhardt, the Railtrack CEO thought he needed to run everything from his office and clearly thought he was above 'media intrusion'. He was crucified. The media were showing pictures of police offices breaking down in tears at the horrors they faced at the site, and then pan back to the interview with the man responsible, sitting in a suit and tie, in his nice comfortable office, VISUALLY completely detached from the breaking story. There was public outrage. Shares in Railtrack collapsed, it was partially re-nationalised as Network Rail (which continues to this day) and that CEO was never seen again.
    Lessons were learnt though. There were a series of other rail disasters over the next few years, and at each one, you could be sure the CEO of the TOC or Network Rail were on site from day one, hard hat on, hi-viz jacket and sleeves rolled up giving media interviews. Yes, it is 'theatre', but the media and the public want to see you in 'environmental pose' - the man of action at the site, sorting things out: not tucked away in a nice office looking ever the indifferent bureaucrat. Look at Richard Branson, who I think even Brian would agree knows a thing or two about PR. He was in Geneva when one of his Virgin trains crashed in the north of England, with one person killed. He immediately flew to the site (helps if you own an airline of course!) and gave all interviews from this remote site. Even though very little was known about the cause of the crash, he was there in environmental pose, giving the '3 Ps' - pity for the victims, pledge to support any investigation, praise for his organisation on how they were helping the rescue and recovery operation. That's all he had to do to get a sympathetic media and the public on board, by being there at the early stage, demonstrating empathy and giving the impression - purely by being on scene from the start - that his company was taking this all very seriously and were 100 percent committed to put things right, not hiding behind their desks in the distant corporate HQ. It is one of the most basic rule of crisis communications.

  36. Loraine Dumas, BBA, MBA (via LinkedIn)July 23, 2013 at 9:43 PM

    I agree with Guy and Bob. Demonstrating sympathy and empathy needs same day response and action.

  37. I agree with Bob that Mr. Burkhardt should have been in Lac-Megantic no later than noon on Saturday. He made a bad choice to stay in Chicago. Bad choice, but not a insurmountable one. There are two sides to a crisis: operational and communications. Both have to work for a response to be effective. In this case, the railroad was shut out of the active operational response that was handled by first responders. So the only way that anyone outside of the railroad business has to make a judgement of Mr. Burkhardt and his company is the communications in which he engaged. The "fly by the seat of your pants", "stroll down the street" approach to his press conference became a surrogate for a railroad that rolled through town leaving chaos and destruction in its wake. Whether people's judgements of the man are fair or unfair are largely irrelevant. It's hard to withhold judgement of a man you didn't know existed until his company's train set your town on fire.

    If Brian K. provided counsel to Mr. Burkhardt, we don't know. If he did, we don't know if Mr. Burkhardt took that counsel. If we accept that the people of Lac-Megantic can make any judgement of Mr. Burkhardt they please, we have to accept that Brian K. holds a different point of view. What I would love to know from Brian is why he thinks such a radical departure from standard crisis comms procedures was warranted here? There are nuances to every crisis, but there's a pretty good playbook from which we can all draw for a response. Yet it doesn't seem like anyone at MM&A read it.

  38. Hi Bill, Great post.

    What struck me about Ed Burkhardt's comments is not only how he focused on himself, but how he appeared to blame the residents for their anger.

    (From CNN) "I mean, they were screaming about how I took three days to get there. People wanted to throw stones at me. I showed up and they threw stones. But that doesn't accomplish anything."

    Had he arrived three days earlier I wonder whether he'd have received quite such a hostile reception.