Edward Burkhardt: Here’s Some Free PR Advice

If the tragedy of the train derailment in Lac Megantic wasn’t so horrific, it could be a laughable PR case study about what not to emulate. To the Chairman of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway, let me give you some advice, on the house.

Preparation: There is hardly a business that is immune from the risk of exposure whether it is an accident, fire or scandal. If you had a crisis communications plan, it didn’t work, but most likely you didn’t have one. You were grossly unprepared and it shows. Like death and taxes, the only certainty is that the unexpected will happen. Be prepared for it.

Get out ahead of the news:  Almost everyone knows that ordinary citizens and the media get to the story immediately – MM&A needed to get out in front of it. Instead, you waited to be chased.  All that you needed to say immediately upon learning of the tragedy was “Our thoughts and prayers are for the victims, their families and the residents of the town. We are by their side.” Follow that by saying you would set up a schedule for regular briefings.

Take a cue from NASA Public Affairs with regard to the Space Shuttle Columbia –

“When things are going well, tell the media everything they want to know.  When things are going wrong, tell them even more.”                                                                 

Presence: It took five days for you to show up at Lac Megantic. From what I’ve read you said you could accomplish more being in Chicago where you could deal with insurance, the media etc. Are you kidding?! Do you not have other senior members of your team competent to deal with such things? You are the public face of the company and needed to rush to the scene and share in the communal pain; call the mayor and show yourself as human. Your actions and statements made you seem distant and uncaring and now you have positioned yourself as the enemy. Good luck rebuilding in that community.

Don’t speculate: You don’t know what you don’t know – so say so. Don’t make it up as you go along.  Engaging in a blame game, whether it’s your employee or the fire department, before all the facts are in is unwise. When asked about accountability you could have said simply, “We are cooperating with all of the regulatory bodies and municipal, provincial and federal authorities. Like everyone involved, we are waiting for the information to unfold as the investigation continues. Right now our primary concern is for the families and the residents of Lac Megantic.” Instead you use words like “obligation”, “probably”, and “the information gets better every day”. Your statements are confusing and show lack of coordination.

Speaking to the media – According to a news report you told TVA that you hope “(you) won’t get shot” when you finally visit Lac Megantic. That’s like Nixon saying “I am not a Crook” or Bill Clinton saying “I did not have sexual relations with that woman…” Why didn’t you issue a statement at the news conference where you could have at least articulated what you wanted to say, before being hammered by questions? The answers you gave satisfied no one.

Doing business in Quebec – Given that the Caisse de Depot de placement reportedly owns 13% of MM&A, and, that you operated in Quebec I have to wonder why the French language communications were described as clumsily translated and why there is nothing in French on your website, including the message on the French version that it’s in the works?

Being online – When I visited the MM&A website I saw that the last news release was dated July 7th, and that there was no message of sympathy – in fact nothing to suggest that it was anything other than business as usual for your company. It would have been so simple to have you prepare a video statement on the site or better still, uploaded to YouTube.

At the end of the day the spectre of a communications and public relations critique is of little consolation to the victims, families, townspeople and emergency service personnel in the quiet hamlet of Lac Megantic, Quebec. However make no mistake, that it will likely never be business as usual in this locality for MM&A. If not for the safety factors alone, but for the sheer heartless and defensive way this was corporately managed.

Don’t take my word for it – just look at Michael McCain and Maple Leaf Foods to find out how to do it right.

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Carol Levine (@Carol_levine) is co-founder and Managing founder of energi PR, digital, communications, an award-winning independently owned Canadian PR consultancy established in 1990 with offices in Toronto and Montreal. energi PR is the Canadian affiliate of the Public Relations Global Network, providing expertise in consumer and healthcare public relations to national and multinational brands. Carol is the immediate past Chair of the Canadian Council of Public Relations firms and is a 2013 Inductee in the Canadian Healthcare Marketing Hall of Fame as well as a Fellow of the Canadian Public Relations Society.