Thursday, July 11, 2013

Lac Mégantic aftermath: anatomy of a major crisis comms fail: the MMA story

The images were some of the scariest possible ... right out of a Hollywood blockbuster, except that the outcome was the most tragic possible. Two dozens dead, scores missing and possibly "vaporized" in the inferno that followed the train derailment in the lakeside community of Lac Mégantic in Québec.

The huge conflagration followed the derailment of a train carrying crude oil (the same train had previously gone through the Greater Toronto Area ...). A runaway train, that's the stuff of movies ... right? Well, it turns out it happens more often than you think. And it now looks as if the railroad which operated the train, the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic, owned by a US company called Rail World, has a dismal safety record

So, you'd think that they have a pretty solid crisis communications plan in place for such incidents? ... Uhm .... maybe not. 

My friend and crisis communications expert, Melissa Agnes, who lives in Montreal, already wrote a pretty scathing piece on this ... but I can't resist. After a few days of dithering, sordid comments and complete confusion, MMA should stand for Middling, Muddled and Awkward ... 

Middling: a more mediocre response is hard to find in the annals of similar incidents:
  • a response that's late ... than ignores the reality of the primary audience (a news release in English ... followed by a farcical translation using an online tool = disrespect for the French-speaking citizens of Lac Mégantic.
  • Here's an excerpt from a news story about the simmering anger of residents: "Complaints about the company have ranged from lack of visibility, to longer-term concerns about safety, to the fact that a press release written in French appeared sloppily translated and loaded with errors."
  • Another excerpt from an online story highlighting the fact that after days of silence, the company's decision to speak out came with its own disaster: "But those are not their biggest blunders. The real problems came when senior company officials decided to open their mouths and, in one case, make a “joke”."
Muddled: confusion, obfuscation and evasion (trying to escape the horde of reporters at the airport after waiting 4 days to show your face ???)
  • various explanations/excuses about whether or not safety procedures (brakes/crew) were followed
  • blaming first responders (firefighters for responding to a train engine earlier that fateful evening)
  • Differing outlook on what happens next.
Awkward: doing a news conference in the middle of the street of the town your company has just destroyed ... unscripted and un-moderated = a bad idea: 

For all his troubles, Ed Burkhardt, the Chair of Rail World got some "advice" from the Premier of Québec, Pauline Marois:

So, what should have taken place? There is no more poignant reminder to any organization to have a crisis communications plan in place to support any business continuity or emergency management program. A plan adapted to risks, audiences and outreach on social networks.

For a good crisis comms template, you can refer to the work my colleague Barry Radford and I did for PTSC-Online.  

Those of you who read this blog, are aware of my admiration for Dr. Covello and his crisis mapping technique (link to full video here and supporting handbook). So i'll adopt one of his templates to share my idea of what should have happened and highlight what we saw.

The CCO template: Compassion, Competence, Optimism 

Compassion: how hard is it to say (despite lawyers arguing against it ...) it's our train, it's our responsibility ...we're deeply sorry ... we'll do all we can to support the families, the town and its people ...? What we got from MMA/Rail World: absence in the critical first few hours, an automated news release and a bad linguistic disconnect with those impacted ...  

Competence: we should have heard: we're doing our own investigation, to make sure this doesn't happen again. We're doing all we can to help the people of Lac Mégantic .... What we got from MMA/Rail World: confusion, conflicting comments on the cause, lack of communications planning, poor execution, ad lib interviews from the top guy ... 

Optimism: He should have said: we'll work with the town ... grieve with them and them help them rebuild .... What we got from MMA/Rail World: we blame the local firefighters in a nearby town, our own guy is to blame/we'll can him ... hard to believe someone who seems to shirk responsibility and blames first responders and appears ready to throw his own people to the wolves ...

Now, who's gonna tell the boss he screwed up? 

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