More PR Lessons from Lac-Mégantic

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It seems The Montreal, Main and Atlantic Railway is trying to improve its PR performance on the Lac-Mégantic tragedy. Some things the company did today were a marked improvement. Burkhardt actually showed up at the site of the derailment and inferno. He spoke frankly and directly with reporters, rather than relying on telephone. He anticipated and effectively answered many of the questions thrown at him. That was a step forward, though one taken too late, as many of his critics have pointed out.

Other aspects of the day did not go so well. Burkhardt seemingly improvised a scrum in the middle of the road before moving to the sidewalk, in full view and earshot of angry citizens, who quickly became part of the story. He would have been far better off to announce a media conference at a nearby hotel and bring a seasoned, bilingual PR professional with him. Somebody with experience as a reporter in Montreal or Quebec would have been ideal – able to help him navigate the crush of reporters and moderate the Q&A portion of the event. In addition, a properly prepared opening statement would have served him well: something eloquent and empathetic to connect with his audience. Having a professionally translated version of that statement available for francophone reporters would have been appreciated. Here again, the help of a seasoned professional would have made a big difference.

Burkhardt also returned to his pattern of bold announcements of the root cause of the problem. On this day (Wednesday), it was the company’s own employees who took the blame for not setting enough hand-brakes. Burkhardt would have done well to speak only of what is known for certain, avoid any and all speculation, and let the Transportation Safety Board (TSB) find the root cause. It’s what they do and they do it well. The best the railway company can do is cooperate fully with the TSB investigators.

Finally, Burkhardt needed to arrange to get himself to the police station, in his own vehicle. The closing shot of him being taken away by the Sureté du Québec officer was devastating for his credibility. A PR professional would have known how best to order the events of the day and the movement of the Chairman.

Still, Burkhardt was there and he didn’t duck the tough questions. At times, he was eloquent and expressed deep sympathy for the people affected. For that, he deserves credit. That kind of performance in a more structured, supported environment and a day or two sooner might well have mitigated the enormous impact this tragedy has had on the company.

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