Lac-Megantic is also a disaster in crisis communications
Who can blame the surviving people of Lac-Megantic from demanding answers and wanting someone to blame for what happened over the weekend.
Most of their outrage is aimed squarely at Ed Burkhardt, chairman of the company that owns and operates the Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway. Watching Global News I saw a sound bite of a local resident saying they should take a rope and hang him. That comment, I suspect, fairly reflects the raw the feelings of many.
As the face of the company that many see as responsible for the runaway train and the subsequent explosion that leveled the centre of the community, leaving, at the time of this writing, 20 confirmed dead, and an estimated 50 others still unaccounted for, he has done precious little to temper that anger.
It's easy to understand. Frankly, my initial reaction watching him in an interview was "what as asshole", but when I listened further I realized that this isn't the devil incarnate here, he's just a guy that is facing something far worse than anything he has ever had to face before, and doing so without the slightest notion of proper crisis communications. It makes him look bad, but that doesn't mean he is bad.
The way this whole thing has played out underlines the importance of understanding crisis communications, and why it matters to do certain things, even if on a strictly logical sense, they may not appear to be important, or even the best choices. Because in a crisis like this, it's emotion that carries the day, and if you don't realize that, and respond accordingly, you will be vilified.
In this case, Burkhardt and his company made many serious mistakes. And each one left a negative impression. The biggest ones included:
- Burkhardt not showing up in the community until nearly four days after the incident. This is interpreted as him not caring about the people of the community. "How can he care, he didn't even bother coming here"
- Deflecting blame. A failure to take responsibility makes people mad because it is seen as Burkhardt being more concerned with covering his own behind, than about the true victims.
There were others including a delay in getting any kind of communications out, lack of contrition, apparently terrible communications in French with lousy translation, and more recently Burkhardt throwing his own engineer under the bus, but let's focus on the two main ones because there are lessons here. But as we do, ask yourself if in his shoes, with no crisis communications training, would you have acted all that differently that he did?
- Not showing up in Lac-Megantic until Wednesday. His point is that he could perform his related functions better form his office in Chicago, and he's correct about that. In this situation, you can imagine his need to connect and deal with any number of people - lawyers, government people, insurance people, his own management people, plus, he rationalized that there isn't much he could do in the community anyway, since the whole area was off limits. He also explained that many others from his company, including the President have been on site for some time.
All of that is true, but what he's missing in his equation is the importance of him being there simply because it is the place he is supposed to be, to be among the community to show that he cares, even at the price of being less efficient. Logic doesn't dictate that, but remember emotion thumps logic in a crisis.
He only made things worse with his comment from afar "I hope that I don't get shot at. I won't have a bullet proof vest on". Inappropriate? Yes, but it's probably how he honestly felt.
- Deflecting blame. First it was at the local volunteer fire department. Then it was the industry standards of practice. Then later it was his engineer's fault. Again, he may be right, but this wasn't the time to talk about that. His comment on fault should have gone no further than saying the various investigations will determine what happened. But in his shoes, with no crisis communications training, this is what people do. It's human nature.
What came across is a man who doesn't care; who is void of compassion, who cared only about himself and his company. But if you watch his interview you can see that he is devastated by this. He simply didn't have the tools to express it effectively. It was there; it was just buried among all that other stuff that came out of him.
And related, it should be noted that the company is otherwise responding as it should. Burkhardt has stated that the company's financial resources will be devoted to this, they have an army of people on site or on route to help people directly, and while unfortunately the message was fudged, the company did say it takes responsibility. The weak link here is the communications.
Some people will say crisis communications is performance over substance. Those would be people who don't understand its purpose. Sure it's about protecting or restoring a company's reputation. But as well it's about connecting with the people who are most impacted, and helping them recover through empathy and sincere compassion.
If you don't do that it doesn't necessarily mean you don't have compassion, it just as likely means you haven't had training.
I expect I am in the minority here because of how badly he blew it, but I think that's the case with Mr. Burkhardt.
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