OTTAWA—When a train plunged into a river near Atlantic City killing 53 people, one of the Pennsylvania Railroad’s first orders of business was to put their public-relations man on the job.
That was in 1906, and Ivy Lee presented the first press release to reporters who were allowed on the scene.
More than 100 years later, public-relations specialists say they’re mystified at the approach taken by the firm at the centre of the disaster at Lac-Megantic, Que.
Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway has drawn the ire of local residents and even the premier for what has been described as a slow, largely unilingual, and even tone-deaf response to the tragedy.
Ed Burkhardt, the president and CEO of the railway’s parent company, Rail World, Inc., arrived on
the scene Wednesday, nearly five days after the derailment incinerated the town centre. He commented to a TVA television reporter beforehand that “I hope that I don’t get shot at. I won’t have a bullet proof vest on.”
Quebec Premier Pauline Marois said she understood Burkhardt didn’t speak French, but felt he could have arrived on the scene earlier.
“It’s a completely deplorable attitude from the company,” Marois said in Quebec City.
Montreal PR specialist Pierre Gince, whose latest blog will be entitled “What MMA hasn’t understood about public relations,” said Burkhardt’s biggest mistake was not coming to the scene immediately.
“There’s a saying that those that are absent are always wrong,” said Gince, president of Montreal-based Direction Communications Strategiques.
“A president by definition is responsible for everything. He’s the ultimate spokesperson, and in this case the company was absent. … It’s like a domino effect. If you’re there, you stay standing, if you’re not there everything falls down.”
Burkhardt held a free-ranging, outdoor news conference with reporters in the middle of a Lac-Megantic road Wednesday.
He had been trailed by cameras since his arrival at the Montreal airport. The company appears not have any specific staff dealing with either media or public relations.
“How much are you worth?” a reporter asked Burkhardt midway through the long news conference.
“A whole lot less than Saturday,” Burkhardt replied.
Gince said the impromptu news conference was another mistake—where Burkhardt would be exposed to unflattering wind, hecklers and general distractions.
Contradictions, Lack of Cultural Sensitivity
There were also contradictions. At the same news conference, Burkhardt said his opinion was that the train engineer was at fault for not applying enough hand brakes to the train. But on Monday, the firm said the locomotive had been tampered with.
Media outlets received a first news release from MMA on Saturday afternoon. The first—and poorly translated—French news release came out after 9 p.m. Sunday.
“They’re not the first corporation to have operations in another country and to show the lack of cultural sensitivity and awareness, but whenever these cases arise, it magnifies the problems that inattention can create,” said Josh Greenberg, associate director of Carleton’s School of Journalism and Communication.
“It further illustrates the cold and distant nature of the relationship between the corporation and the community.”
Jane Shapiro, senior vice-president at Hill and Knowlton Strategies, said she advises clients to put out information within 60 to 90 minutes, and from the outset acknowledge something terrible has happened and explain what the company is doing.
After that, Shapiro says, information should come out as quickly as possible, but it must be accurate. She points to BP Oil’s originally lowballed estimates of the amount of oil spilling into the Gulf Coast as an example of what not to do.
“You always want to make sure you don’t get beyond yourself. You only speak about what you know to be true, not what you hope to be true or think might be true,” said Shapiro, also the company’s national practice leader on crisis communications.
Burkhardt’s body language, tone, and language skills are other matters that public relations experts say could have been addressed beforehand.
Burkhardt has a casual, frank manner of speech and smiles often even through tough questions. One colleague explained the boss has a “different sense of humour.”
Said Greenberg: “It kind of magnifies the problems that can arise, when poor body language, when poor choice of words are used in cases of disaster and crisis.”
Meanwhile, Quebec police say the official death toll in the train derailment is now 20 and that another 30 people are considered missing and most likely dead.
Inspector Michel Forget gave the update at an evening news conference Wednesday.
The previous death toll stood at 15 with another 45 people missing. Police say they are treating the disaster area as a “crime scene.” The national Transportation Safety Board is also investigating.
With files from The Canadian Press