Just like death and taxes, accidents are a fact of life. There’s no escaping it. So why were Edward Burckhardt and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway seemingly so totally unprepared for the accident at Lac Megantic? It’s not like derailments are uncommon. This has become a textbook case of what not to do in a crisis.
So here’s what you should do.
Develop a plan of action well in advance of any crisis. Waiting for a crisis to happen and then trying to ad-live is no way to handle it. The action plan should include how to deal with the media, the victims and the public at large, including politicians and others businesses. The plan should also include how to handle the monetary aspects of a crisis.
Treat the media with respect and don’t lecture them. Answer questions truthfully, which doesn’t mean telling them everything you know. The media is just trying to do their job and most of their questions are predictable.
When a crisis, like the one at Lac Megantic, happens the CEO should show up within 24 hours not 4 days later as Burckhardt did. A delay in showing up signals that the CEO doesn’t care. However, the visit must be carefully managed keeping the CEO clear of the immediate disaster area so as not to interfere and must try to show genuine concern. Basically put yourself in the place of those immediately impacted by the accident and ask yourself how you would like to be treated.
Wait for the facts to present themselves before making a comment, passing judgment or admitting liability. Burckhardt first blamed the firefighters and then blamed the engineer for the accident at a time when it was too early to know exactly what happened. And what if the person or persons you blamed turn out to be truly innocent? Now you’ve got another problem on your hands. In a crisis there is lots of misinformation and speculation floating around, which the CEO and other company officials don’t need to contribute to.
Come with money. Even if you aren’t legally liable bringing at least some money shows genuine concern and will go far to help improve the imagine of your company. And pay your bills promptly.
One last thing don’t act nervous or play the poor me game. As Alan Bonner said in the Toronto Star the crisis isn’t about you.
Here’s a story I heard about how the Boy Scouts Of America handled an accident at one of their camps. One teen took an unauthorized joy ride with a friend in a motor vehicle and was killed in an accident and the other teen injured. The Boy Scouts paid for the funeral of the boy who was killed and the medical expenses of the one who was injured. They treated the families with genuine concern and respect. The result was neither family sued. That’s how to handle a crisis.
Unfortunately the Lac Megantic accident may end Burckhardt’s career or at the very least tarnish it. This is sad, as prior to this he was greatly admired in railway industry for turning around several railways in the United States and New Zealand. “Ed is a living legend,” Henry Posner, CEO of Railroad Development Corp., quoted in Business Week Business Week
The bottom line for those of you working in public relations is be prepared.