For a dismaying example of crisis communication, we turn to Edward Burkhardt, chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway, whose runaway oil train set fire to the town of Lac-Mégantic in Quebec, Canada, with horrifying human consequences. No doubt feeling busy but responsive, Burkhardt waited four days to make to go to the town, then held a strolling press conference when the media spotted him there. He came across as actually befuddled, however well-meaning he may have been.
Watch a recording of his "news conference," then turn to crisis management consultant Melissa Agnes' critique of his performance. It must have been especially painful to her, since she lives only 150 miles away from Lac-Mégantic in Montreal. Naively or not, Burkhardt broke all the rules of good, prompt crisis communication. His pickup news conference will be a classic example of mishandling a crisis, including speaking, of course, entirely in English when many of Lac-Mégantic's people are French.
If there ever was a demonstration of the need for prior training, drilling and showing empathy in crisis communication, this is it. However small your railroad (or whatever enterprise with possible impact) may be, you need to prepare earnestly for a crisis that, hopefully, will never come.
Doug Bedell has a background in journalism and PR and is the owner of Resource Relations LLC in Central PA, focusing on organizational and crisis communication. He’s the community manager of SimplyFair.net, a social network on fairness. On the Web, Doug’s at www.ResourceRelations.com. On Twitter, he’s @DougBeetle.
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