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I was on holiday recently taking advantage of the very good weather we were having in the UK. When you get hot sunny weather in Scotland you have to get out and take advantage of it!

I almost missed the news about the horrific train crash in Canada, in which the train rolled down into the centre of the town of  Lac-Megantica, derailed and exploded killing some 50 people and destroying the centre of the small Quebec town. I have used train crashes as an exercise when clients have had offices near railway lines, but the explosion of the light crude in 72 oil tankers was beyond what you can imagine, even for an exercise.

A colleague, Paul Macfarlane sent me a clip of a press interview with Edward Burkhardt, President of Rail World, which is a classic example of how not to handle the aftermath of such a major incident when caused by one of your company’s trains.

Interview Edward Burkhardt – President of Rail World

Some thoughts on the incident and their handling of the crisis.

  1. You need to understand what the possible incidents are for the industry you are involved in and to have plans in place for the typical incidents that occur. A crash involving one of your trains injuring or killing members of the public is a fairly obvious type of incident. There appears to have been no crisis management plan for this at all. When I heard in the interview that all the management team headed to the scene of the crash leaving the CEO in the office, shows little regard to incident planning and having a plan in place.
  2. There have been a number of train crashes over the last few decades in the UK with loss of life and there is a well used formula for dealing with them. The Virgin Rail train crash on the 23rd February 2007, just to the south of Grayrigg, Cumbria fronted by Richard Branson is a casebook example – he left his holiday and was rushed by all means possible to the scene of the incident. He apologised for the crash, he praised the driver for doing all he could to save people, praised the emergency services and said there would be a full investigation into the causes of the crash.
  3. It was obvious again, from the interview with Edward Burkhardt that the company had no crisis communications plan in place and had no real idea of how to handle this incident. As there are lots of good examples out there of how to do this well, it shows a complete lack of planning and understanding of crisis management. I have read a number of articles on this incident and how the inept handling of the crisis communications, by the CEO and the company is making the situation worse.
  4. There was a time that if you attended media training you were advised not to say sorry or admit that it was your organisation that may have caused the incident, as this was admission of liability for the incident. Nowadays this has gone full circle and you are encouraged to say sorry.
  5. Edward Burkhardt’s ‘sorry’ didn’t seem sincere and he was more concerned about getting on with pointing who he thought should be blamed for the incident, rather than concentrating on the apology and admitting his company’s part in the incident. There have been a number of cases by high profile people, who after purposely or accidentally making insulting comments have made the situation worse by giving seemingly insincere apologies. A classic example of this is Paula Deen, a Food Network celebrity, in the midst of a full-on crisis due to accusations of racial discrimination against her former and current employees. Her apologies were felt to be insincere reinforcing that perhaps she is racist and continuing the crisis in the media. It you are going to say sorry make sure you come across as sincere.

To sum up lessons from this incident * Understand your risks * Have a plan in place including a crisis communications management plan * Learn from how others have dealt with similar incidents and learn to say sorry sincerely!

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