Are you in the midst of a breaking crisis? Call +1 (514) 458-7101

The Crisis Intelligence Blog

The City of Ottawa’s Response to the OC Transpo & Via Rail Crash

19 Sep

via-rail-oc-transpo-train-collision-crisisEditor’s Note: This case study was written by Tegan Ford

The morning of September 18, near the Fallowfield train station, in the west end of Ottawa, a double-decker OC Transpo bus barreled through a lowered rail barrier and drove into a moving VIA Rail train, shearing off the entire front of the bus. As a result, a total of 34 people were injured. Of the injured, five people, including the bus driver, were declared dead at the scene, a sixth person died in the hospital, and 11 were in critical condition.

Immediately, witness accounts and public speculation covered social and traditional media outlets. One witness on the scene described the event as follows:

“The guard rails were down. The train was going through. I was just looking around watching things happening and notice the bus, the double decker bus… just kept going. I thought maybe there was a side way around. But just smoked the train. He went right through the guardrail and just hammered the train. Then it was just mayhem.” – Mark Cogan

Another witness tweeted:

How did the City of Ottawa fare in their online crisis communications?

Overall, in the wake of this tragedy, the City of Ottawa, including OC Transpo, Ottawa Police, and Mayor Jim Watson delivered an appropriate and effective crisis response. The following is what they did well:

  • Twitter was used to issue hourly updates on the response, the incident, road closures, bus cancellations, and upcoming press releases.
  • Communications focused on the victims and their family, and sympathy was expressed.
  • The public was kept informed about city response actions including: activating the emergency response; deploying all available resources (and having Toronto helicopters on stand-by); commencing an investigation by the Ottawa Police, the Transportation Safety Board of Canada, and the Coroner; allocating a community centre as a reunification site for those affected.

Immediacy is necessary in a crisis – here’s why

It took over an hour before the City, OC Transpo, Mayor Jim Watson, or VIA Rail issued their first statement on social media. In this social media era, this is a risky move. Eyewitnesses are quick to post their experience (in this case it took mere minutes) and the public is just as quick to speculate on the situation’s severity and its cause. Before city representatives even mentioned the crash, hashtags #OCtranspo, #VIARail, and #Fallowfield were already trending across the twittersphere.

Remember: Major players involved in a crisis need to use social media to offer their side of the story before they lose control of the narrative to the public and media.

Read: What is your Ideal Crisis Response Time?

Recommendations for moving forward

As this crisis continues to unfold, it will be important for city officials to do the following within their continued crisis communications:

  • Declare Corrective Action: As the cause of the accident becomes evident, it will be important for the correct parties to communicate planned courses of action to assure the public that an event like this will not occur in the future.
  • Transparency: To reduce further rumours and speculation, as the investigation unfolds, all official organizations will need to keep the public informed as transparently and openly as possible.

Melissa’s two cents:

Although the City officials, Via Rail and OC Transpo all did a good job with their digital crisis communications, I would have liked to have seen a consistent hashtag used across all official channels within their communications. This hashtag could have been determined by one of the organizations and quickly sent to the others, and would have given all organizations, journalists, bloggers and concerned citizens one targeted hashtag to follow for all official updates on the crisis.

A crisis hashtag strategy is something that all organizations are going to have to start using more consistently – especially when there are multiple official players who have a role within an incident’s crisis communications.

Read: The Use of Hashtags in your Crisis Communications

Image credit: Terry Pedwell/AP

2 Responses to “The City of Ottawa’s Response to the OC Transpo & Via Rail Crash”

  1. MC September 20, 2013 at 9:47 am #

    Melissa's point about having authorities include an "official" hashtag in all their communications is a good one. However, social media commenters will inevitably make up their own hashtags as well so monitoring these will be crucial.

    • Melissa Agnes September 20, 2013 at 10:41 am #

      Hi MC, you're certainly right. Monitoring conversations, mentions, hashtags, links, speculation… and the list goes on is not an option in a crisis. Along with this comes being on top of what hashtags and keywords are being used by the public.

      Thanks for the input!

Leave a Reply