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Lac-Mégantic Crisis: A Look at Rail World Inc.’s Crisis Communications #Fail

11 Jul

lac-meganticLac-Mégantic, a small Quebec town, was devastated by a tragic and horrific incident on Saturday, July 6th, when 72 train cars carrying crude oil derailed and rolled downhill, exploding in the small town’s downtown area. As of the writing of this post, 20 people have been announced dead and 30 remain missing.

As I watch this crisis unfold, only 150 miles away from my home in Montreal, there are two things in particular that stand out: the crisis leadership and communications fail of the Chicago-based company that owns the train, Rail World Inc., and the executive Chairman that everyone looked to for leadership, but was no where to be found, Edward Burkhardt.

Rail World Inc.’s crisis communications fail

The biggest communications fails are those (crisis communications) that do not exist, and those that come across as insincere and half-assed in a crisis situation.

I wish I could report to you that Rail World Inc. had at least utilized social media as a communications tool for communicating with stakeholders, the media and concerned residents of the Lac-Mégantic community, but unfortunately I can’t. The company has zero corporate social presence and I suppose it never occurred to them to create, at the very least, a Twitter account to keep stakeholders updated throughout the crisis.

Read: The Use of Hashtags in Your Crisis Communications

On top of this, the press releases they published to the news section on their website lacked sincerity and a show of true compassion. They also released their initial responses to the tragic crisis in English. This would typically be OK – had the crisis not taken place in a province and town where the victims and their families and friends are French-speaking. This lack of attention to detail helped to further anger the victims of the small town, since it showed that the company who owned the train that exploded their city couldn’t care enough to release a statement that they could read and comprehend. Adding insult to injury, when the company finally did publish a French version of the press releases, the translations were extremely poor.

Sincere, informative and real-time communication in an emergency crisis is of the utmost importance. Social media and the corporate website need to be used properly and regular updates need to be published. Not to mention that communications need to be adapted for the language and culture of the location and people affected by the crisis.

What is expected of leadership in a crisis?

Rail World Inc.’s website’s “About” section states that Edward Burkhardt “serves as Chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, a 750 mile regional railway operating in Maine, Vermont, Quebec and New Brunswick.”

lac-megantic-edward-burkhardtSo guess who the media and the citizens of Lac-Mégantic looked to for support, leadership, sympathy and answers to their questions during the early stages of this crisis? You guessed it! Edward Burkhardt. However, for 4 days, Burkhardt was nowhere to be found.

In a tragic crisis such as this one, there are certain obligations that leadership, in this case Burkhardt, must commit to and be present for. Being on the scene as early as possible is one of them. Showing support, sympathy, empathy and being helpful to the community are others. Burkhardt failed in his crisis leadership duties and as a result, the victims of the town of Lac-Mégantic were justifiably insulted and angry with him for doing so.

Read: Calgary Floods: Analysis of (Excellent) Crisis Leadership and Use of Social Media

It took 4 days for Burkhardt to even make an appearance in the province of Quebec, and when he first arrived at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau airport in Montreal on Wednesday, his first attempt was to escape the airport without making a statement to the press – who were outside waiting for him.

First off, 4 days in a horrific incident such as this is much too long to wait for an appearance by the company executive. Burkhardt explains his absence by saying that his time was better spent working from his office. Well, he was obviously not well coached by a crisis management professional who understands the importance and value of the role a company leader must play, on-location, in a crisis – especially a high-profile tragedy such as this one.

Throughout the different discussions Burkhardt has had with the media in the last 2 days, he has:

  • Not shown enough true sympathy and empathy for the victims and their families and friends
  • Passed blame on the fire fighters and a company employee (making some serious, criminal accusations)
  • Made excuses and has been overly defensive

Watch: More insightful crisis and emergency management tips on this crisis via The Crisis Show

Company leadership needs to be upfront and centre. They need to show support and sympathy above all else, and they are required to release timely updates and news as it becomes available. They also need to take responsibility, rather than make excuses. Unfortunately, in all of the above mentioned key responsibilities, Burkhardt gets a big fat #fail!

What can you do to make sure these mistakes don’t happen to your company in a crisis?

It all comes down to being prepared in advance. High-profile crises can develop at any moment, as companies and organizations the likes of Rail World Inc., Paula Deen Enterprises, LLC, Susan G. Komen and many others have recently experienced. The trick to not letting a crisis destroy your company’s reputation is by being prepared in advance – something that the three above mentioned companies would surely agree with today (having all experienced severe reputational and bottom line repercussions due to their lack-there-of).

So what do you need to be prepared with in advance?

If (and when) you can check all of the below points off your to-do list, you can consider your company or organization adequately prepared to manage a crisis in today’s digital and viral-potential world:

  • Crisis prevention, planning and training
  • Crisis media training
  • Crisis social media monitoring

I know I ask you this often, and you can bet that I’ll continue to do so:

Is your organization prepared to manage – and quickly overcome – a crisis in today’s digital age?

Image credit CTV News and Edmonton journal

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9 Responses to “Lac-Mégantic Crisis: A Look at Rail World Inc.’s Crisis Communications #Fail”

  1. Mike McKenna July 11, 2013 at 9:22 am #

    Excellent analysis as usual!

  2. Duncan Matheson July 11, 2013 at 9:23 am #

    Some great points Melissa. The comment I am hearing repeatedly is that people simply can't believe a company that ships volatile cargo such as this railway wouldn't have crisis communications training and, as you add, crisis communications planning in place, as they go hand-in-hand. It is rather mind-boggling but as a result this Burkhardt guy is coming off very negative. I suspect he really does have compassion for the people involved, but because of the lack of proper crisis comms training, and the fact he doesn't appear to be a naturally warm and fuzzy guy, he doesn't know how to express it. And he digs the hole deeper by making comments he shouldn't be making. This will be a case study for crisis comms folks for many years to come.

    • Melissa Agnes July 11, 2013 at 12:00 pm #

      Hi Duncan,

      I agree with you. I believe that Burkhardt cares, he just wasn't provided proper crisis management, crisis communications and crisis media training prior to the incident. And, as you say, that's really unbelievable for such a high-risk company.

      We certainly will be looking back on this. I've already made a note to do some research in about a year from now to see where Rail World Inc. is at that point – in terms of long-term consequences to their reputation and bottom line, as well as crisis-ready.

      Thanks for weighing in, Duncan!

  3. Duncan Matheson July 11, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    You make a good point Brett – usually when someone fails at communications there is a lawyer to blame in the background somewhere, but in this case, given what he is saying and has said, he's obviously not taking his talking orders from legal counsel either.

    • Melissa Agnes July 11, 2013 at 12:05 pm #

      It's just a crisis communications disaster – Which is truly and deeply unacceptable in such a tragic crisis. Total fail.

  4. Melissa Agnes July 11, 2013 at 12:04 pm #

    Hi Brett,

    There certainly is an enormous different in the crisis preparedness and communications between Rail World Inc. and both the mayor and City of Calgary a couple weeks ago.

    It's amazing how such a high-risk and huge company could be so underprepared. But perhaps you're right, perhaps Burkhardt is just not listening to his council. Although at that point, it would be his council's obligation to communicate with the other company executives to have him removed from being front and centre during this time of crisis.

  5. andreas andreou July 28, 2013 at 7:07 am #

    Hi Melissa,
    This case is the definition of completely disaster.We must avoid this dangerous steps.
    This man was completely wrong.No excuses.
    Thanks Andreas.


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