Lac-Mégantic Crisis Communication: What Went Wrong?


lac megantic

The tragedy in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec will go down in the annals of Canadian history as being the most horrific tragedy of 2013. Not since the Westray, Nova Scotia mining disaster of 1992, or that province’s Springhill mining disaster in 1958, has the country endured the loss of human life at this magnitude.

What makes this tragedy so different is that Mother Nature played no role in its creation. Sincere messages of condolence, concern and caring emanated from all corners of the world from elected officials across Canada, to the U.S. President and the Pope. But what is notably absent is a genuine expression of sincerity and condolence from the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway and more importantly from Edward Burkhardt, its CEO.

The handling of this catastrophe is a blatant example of crisis management gone wrong or better yet, not even having a plan. 

The first golden rule of managing a crisis is: Have a plan! What we saw, failure to plan quickly became planning to fail as the company’s image or brand was irreparably damaged and possibly destroyed.

Going hand-in-hand with first rule is: Action may hurt, but inaction kills! Waiting 5 days to come to the scene of the tragedy, and then making statements such as he felt it would be better for him to stay in Chicago and make arrangements with insurers and contractors rather than being at the scene with a cell phone and trying to coordinate things on site, set the tone that Burkhardt’s priorities were with his company and not with the citizens of Lac-Mégantic. In this day and age of technology and faster transportation, the company’s command centre could have quickly been moved to the site of the tragedy.

The third rule is: Do your research! Find out as much as you can! Could he not have met with the Canadian Transportation Board or the Fire Marshal? From watching the news conference, it quickly became apparent that Burkhardt was totally unprepared.

The next rule from a crisis communications standpoint is to: Take swift, firm and sincere action! In this case show empathy for the magnitude of the tragedy to the families of the dead, and an understanding or sensitivity to loss of loved ones and to the town’s destruction. Once in Lac-Mégantic, rather than immediately addressing the town residents, or at least the town’s mayor, the de-facto representative of the people and offer his sincerest condolences to the town and the families of the victims, he went directly to conduct a haphazard media conference that can best be described as being erratic and argumentative.

The fifth rule is: Know your audience and make a serious attempt to bond with them in some fashion! Having someone by his side to translate into French, and making a serious attempt to communicate in their first language would have gone a far ways to bringing Burkhardt and his corporation to the level the townspeople. “My condolences go out to the citizens of Lac-Mégantic”, or better yet a full hearted attempt to say: “Mes condoléances. C’est très tragique”. Even a small gesture such as this would have gone a long way to show a bit of empathy on his part.

Although Burkhardt made statements such: “I feel terrible about this”, and “I understand what people are going through”, it’s hard to feel that he showed much sympathy for the town as he went through the media interview, with an air of combativeness, while smiling and with a smirk on his face. He should have acted more humbly and seriously. During any crisis, and specially, when there is loss of life, be somber, and do not wear the same smile as you would while rejoicing at a celebration.

The sixth rule is: Accept responsibility and act responsibly! His only admission of responsibility was the comment that: “We had a reasonable safety record until we blew it all”.

How hard would it have been for Burkhardt to offer even a generous contribution to a local charity that will become involved in the cleanup of the town, or provide crisis counselling to those that will need it. Financial liabilities exist, but he could have brought a team of grief counsellors with him. After the loss of so many, I can guarantee that many of the townspeople will need intensive counselling. This reminds me of the saying: “money talks and BS walks”.

The seventh rule is: Have a message! Keep repeating it and stay on course with the message! The message should have been one of sympathy and concern for the victims and their families, the need to investigate and get answers, and show that a tangible effort is being made to help by his company. Making statements such as “we will devote our companies resources”, and “we will meet our responsibilities”, just sounds too bureaucratic. These types of comments are well and good when talking in terms of a business issue; but these were not shareholders of the company, they were victims.

Burkhardt should have remembered the acronym “KISS”. The eighth rule is that: Keep it simple stupid!

The ninth golden rule is: Stick to the message! Never speculate! Finding the cause of a disaster should always be secondary to those who have suffered, and to the victims.

This leads us to the tenth rule of crisis communications: When you’re in a hole; stop digging! Burkhardt ignored this, and continued to dig his hole, and quite possibly his corporation’s grave. Comments placing blame first on the firefighters who were involved in a minor blaze prior to the tragedy, and then on the train engineer for failing to set the brakes, were mere speculations on his part. He should have said: “We don’t know but are working and cooperating with the authorities to find out”. He should have continued to stick to the message of empathy and concern for the families and the loss of life.

While following the broadcast of his news conference, and after hearing him say: “I hope you have heard my apology a dozen times,” and blaming everyone but himself, I am hit with a distinct feeling of insincerity and apathy for the people of Lac-Mégantic. With every effort being made to deflect his and the corporation’s role and responsibility for the incident, the tactic reminded me of the foundation for the Art of Karate where the best defence is a good offence. No wonder that the company is falling deeper into the hole.

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