Recent and very sad events in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec will have many important lessons for railway operators, government regulators, and municipal planners. I suspect the shipping of oil by rail in Canada will never be quite the same. In addition, there will be less important but nonetheless valuable lessons for public relations professionals as well. Many mistakes have been made by executives and politicians alike in their early response to the tragedy.
Ed Burkhardt, Chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic railway was slow to offer any comments on the events, preferring to stay hidden from the media and public scrutiny for 36 hours. This, as always, opened the field to critics of the company and the industry to frame the event while the company’s silence eroded trust and damaged the image of the railway and its employees.
When he did finally speak to reporters, it was via telephone – always cold and distant as a channel – and Burkhardt immediately began distancing the railroad from events, preferring to speculate on “tampering” with the locomotive as the cause of the incident. Burkhardt suggested firefighters in nearby Nantes may have shutdown the locomotive, causing the brakes to fail: “We are now aware the firefighters shut down the locomotive. By the time (Montreal, Maine & Atlantic) people found out, it was too late.”
Two grievous mistakes were made here: speculating about events, rather than sticking to certain facts, and using a word like “tampered,” with its connotations of sabotage. In so doing, Burkhardt essentially positioned himself and the company against volunteer fire fighters – never a good idea in times of crisis. First responders will win the public’s sympathies every time.
By not limiting comments to facts that were confirmed and certain, Burkhardt also set the stage for the inevitable contradictions that happen as people speculate. The Toronto Star reports that “A Montreal, Maine and Atlantic employee was on the scene, said Ross at a news conference Tuesday morning, appearing to contradict the company chair who said a “track man” ran into the firefighters as they were leaving the scene.
More recently, Burkhardt seems to have seen the light or perhaps listened to the advice of his PR staff or consultant. In a subsequent telephone interview with the CBC, he announced changes to his company’s safety procedures and promised to compensate the victims and their families. The tone has softened, finally, and attention is on the victims.
Sadly, there was nothing like an apology in the interview. Accepting responsibility is one thing, but expressing sorrow, empathy and sympathy for victims is quite another.
In the same interview, when asked to characterize his railway’s safety record, Burkhardt chose “reasonable” as his adjective of choice. The one word became the headline and the headline was far from reassuring. A more skillful answer would have been nuanced and avoided the headlines. He was on much stronger ground talking about “working diligently” and confirming that “one incident is too many.”
Burkhardt also confirmed he would travel to the scene of the disaster. I happen to agree with his decision to stay in Chicago initially. The trouble is nobody from the company has been on the scene and authorized to speak on behalf of the company. A Vice President with more technical knowledge and who could stand in front of the cameras would have been a much better approach.
More lessons, I’m sure, will emerge. In the meantime, my thoughts and sympathies are with the people of Lac-Mégantic and their families.