In (partial) defence of Edward Burkhardt

Like most news junkies, I’ve been transfixed by the walking PR nightmare that is Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway and the public face of the company many blame for causing the deaths of up to 50 people in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec.

On Wednesday, four days after the disaster, Burkhardt finally arrived in the small town, and hounded by journalists, heckled by residents and maybe even snubbed by the mayor, he tried his best to explain himself. He spent almost 45 minutes straight answering journalists’ questions in a series of unplanned scrums. He finally stopped when the Sûreté du Québec pulled him away to meet with their investigators.

He tried to explain that his company had been present since the beginning, that he thought he was more useful coordinating efforts from his office in Chicago than walking around Lac-Mégantic on a cellphone. He tried to explain that he wasn’t trying to blame the Nantes fire department for the disaster by pointing out its shutdown of the locomotive that led to air brakes failing. He tried to explain that his company was taking responsibility for the disaster, that it appears hand brakes on the train were not properly set, and that he apologizes unreservedly to the population for what happened. And he tried to explain that there’s a lot of stuff he still doesn’t know.

But it all fell on deaf ears. Nobody was satisfied by his explanations. If anything, people got angrier.

Future textbook case

I’m glad I’m not a shareholder in Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway. (Well, actually, I kind of am. The Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec has a stake in it.) Not only has the disaster guaranteed a huge financial burden on the struggling company, and split its network in two so it can barely operate anymore, but Burkhardt’s actions since then have dug it even further. As unsatisfying as his assumption of responsibility was to the victims, it opened his company up to a huge legal liability. It doesn’t matter whether it was a mechanical problem with the trains, or the fault of the engineer who set the brakes, or the fault of the employee the train was left with after the fire was put out in Nantes. Responsibility rests with the company either way, and it will probably pay every last cent of its worth in damages and go out of business.

Burkhardt was asked by a journalist how much he is personally worth. He said he’s not a rich man, and said matter-of-factly that he’s worth a lot less than he was before the disaster. It was a heartless statement by a man with no apparent sense of what a proper emotional response is to events like this. But it was true. It’s his company, and he owns most of it. His ownership stake in it is probably about worthless now. When he said he worries about bankruptcy, it was just as heartless, but just as true.

I seriously wonder if Burkhardt has some sort of personality disorder. He seems completely incapable of showing empathy or emotion. It makes his statements seem insincere. And his body language is atrocious. He almost looks like he’s smirking when he’s talking about how devastated he is.

Burkhardt will soon be a chapter in what companies should not do from a public relations standpoint. He didn’t rush to the scene to get a photo op hugging victims. He was a unilingual anglophone trying to communicate with a French-language population, and even his company’s written statements at first were only in English. He doesn’t have a team of spin doctors working behind the scenes trying to implement public image damage control. He doesn’t have a team of lawyers making sure he doesn’t say anything that can be used against the company later. He’s just a guy who owns a small railway company muddling through a disaster that has been covered around the world.

Is being honest evil?

I won’t say that he hasn’t made mistakes. He’s made some big ones, not including the company policies that may have contributed to the disaster itself. He failed to communicate well with the population. He was too quick to speculate as to causes and blame others early on. He seems entirely disorganized. And he should have been on the scene earlier. Maybe not on the first day, if there were urgent matters to coordinate from his office. But by Sunday or Monday he should have been there, not Wednesday.

And there are some honest, useful aspects of public relations that his company has also failed at. It failed to communicate with the population in their language. It failed to properly explain what it is doing in response to this disaster. And Burkhardt’s choice of words has led to the impression that he’s constantly contradicting himself at a time when confusion is about the last thing you want.

But what gets me are those who lash out at him for being honest, for laying it out on the line. Here’s a Canadian Press story quoting a PR specialist saying Burkhardt shouldn’t have answered journalists’ questions for 45 minutes because doing so meant he “would be exposed to unflattering wind, hecklers and general distractions.”

Yes, as many as 50 people are dead, and we should blame the head of the railway company because he didn’t consider how unflattering the wind would be to his appearance during the press conference.

During stories abut Burkhardt’s visit, I see TV reporters doing stories saying that residents “want answers.” Burkhardt gave them. Honestly, matter-of-factly, without emotion. They were unpolished answers that didn’t go through the PR filter. And for some reason we consider that a bad thing.

Maybe it’s time we accept that in times of catastrophe, we don’t really want to hear the truth. We want to be comforted by PR professionals whose job it is to distort the truth before it gets to us.

42 thoughts on “In (partial) defence of Edward Burkhardt

  1. Marc

    Just who does this Berkhardt piece of shit think he is lecturing who can and can’t talk at the press conference? What an ignorant, senile fuckface this he is. This is not human behavior that was demonstrated by him. This is a being from some anti-human race.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Just who does this Berkhardt piece of shit think he is lecturing who can and can’t talk at the press conference?

      He’s the guy running the press conference? I mean, that’s what you do at a press conference. Otherwise everyone talks at the same time and nobody can understand anything.

      Reply
  2. bouchecl

    Steve,

    I saw your discussion with some of your colleagues earlier today and after reflecting on the last few days here’s why Burkhardt and MM&A became the obvious scapegoat, regardless of actual or alleged negligence on their part. The company and its main shareholder looked so bad because the municipality and Quebec’s response was

    Lac-Mégantic had an emergency plan and they implemented in the first hours of the catastrophe. Quebec was ready: Sécurité civile was quickly mobilized and they started calling in government resources on the scene: the hospital was put on red alert, the environment teams were dispatched, the local high school was opened, the Red Cross was called, SQ reinforcements were activated, all in the wee hours of the morning. Early Saturday morning, everything was in place and they were able to communicate to the public with a unified message. They were prepared and they worked from a well laid out plan.

    On the other hand, the company likely had no plan for a disaster. So, they improvised one. It took them 16 hours to issue a first news release, they seemed unsure about the investigative process in Canada (their first release talked about sending an investigative team, but contrary to the US, carriers are never part of a Canadian TSB investigation, contrary to the US NTSB). They never identified support resources dealing with Quebec and Canadian law, PR, media monitoring. They had no command and control structure nearby, no local knowledge and no possible spot to locate their crisis HQ. And they started giving individual interviews rather than converging on the scene. They were caught up in a deadly spiral.

    So it was way more than a communication breakdown. It was a disaster planning utter failure.

    Reply
  3. Steve Rukavina

    I agree with you in some ways. Ed Burkhardt’s unvarnished comments were in many ways refreshing and surprising, and much more revealing than a statement crafted by “PR experts” would have been.

    What I do find offensive about the whole episode is that Burkhardt and his media presence became a spectacle, at a time and place where what’s required is dignity, grace and reassurance. I don’t think he’s evil at all. I just think he’s disorganized and naive, and people in Lac-Megantic have suffered because of his flaws. I agree with Bouchecl above. Companies operate with certain privileges, but they have subsequent responsibilities. Planning for disasters or accidents and responding to them appropriately is one of those responsibilities. I think most would agree that MMA has failed in that respect, at least in the early days of this.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      What I do find offensive about the whole episode is that Burkhardt and his media presence became a spectacle, at a time and place where what’s required is dignity, grace and reassurance.

      I’m not sure how this could have been avoided. I suppose if he’d been there on Day 1 it would have been less of a spectacle. But he’s been granting interviews with the media since the beginning, and yet he was hounded as if he’d been in hiding for weeks.

      Reply
      1. John

        The MMA railway has done everything it can to remove all regulations-these same regulations that could have saved it from going under in the first place.

        Reply
    2. The Swami

      This guy is a career railway guy. He knows the ins and outs of how the operations work in the minutia because he’s been there. I sure he had his engineer’s licence at one time. I have met many similar individuals like him in the industrial sector. Men and Women who have worked their way up in a very dangerous industry. He’s taken the jabs at a whole lot of people – the fire department who may or may have disable the air relief system as a pre-caution to avoid a fire that they were attending to from getting out of hand – fire needs air and flash flames occur where there are breaches in air supply conduits and air compression systems blow up on occasion when the heat rises and the air expands to rapidly for the release valves (if in non-corroded conditions) operate properly.

      I would say that when the review is completed, we will learn, like all border towns, that the federal – state – provincial – county – and regional bodies with oversight will end up arguing as to whose responsibility it was to conduct oversight. It is widely known that between the US and Canada when it comes to gateway locations for handling industrial products, the bare minimum (even inadequate) response capabilities (public safety services) are made at the locales in less populated areas where there are border crossings – its very expensive to maintain top notch readiness to potential and real disasters like this.

      The lobby and industry is highly culpable because the old granny shareholders with reams of holdings want their dividend. This has watered down the rigid policies in the past when railroads were established. There used to be all kinds of industrial accidents when there were more independant railroads that existed in majors and minor towns in cities during the years before automotive and roadways. As a deal, the consolidation with the government lead to a consistent improvements and later to degradation in controls because new technology could do it better than the “emperor of the north” style of running a railroad.

      The evolution of my expertise from being a Industrial Millwright Mechanic to a Technology Information Security Specialist (how can that be…easy if you willing to think outside the box) allows me to take the transferrable skills I have in working with steel, hydraulics, motion, electrical, microprocessors, telecommunications, fraud, and software.

      I think this is approaching the boundaries of litigation for the sake of nowhere else to go. Too bad for these people this is a small fry company and not directly tied to Canadian National else there would be a nice pay off.

      There won’t be a change to industry practices in any substantive way to reduce the risk of this occurring. I am not pessimistic – I just now how industry works.

      Other commentators I see on the Globe and Mail and other bourgeois media outlets have never picked up a real tool in their life, do not understand the complexities of modern living delivery systems, have an immediate response and a bone to pick with anyone or anything they have no literal or figurative thing they are able or willing to understand, have a disdain for the lowly worker even though they smile so graciously and thankfully for the beauty that some are able to create for them (install a simple light fixture). This has not changed with the result of the importation of professionals that we allow into our country from class based system countries – these folks only perpetuate a bad behaviour and increase the agenda for those that created this design.

      I am a bit angry at this all – but I hope my arguments were reasonable.

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        I would say that when the review is completed, we will learn, like all border towns, that the federal – state – provincial – county – and regional bodies with oversight will end up arguing as to whose responsibility it was to conduct oversight.

        Transportation is under federal jurisdiction. Rail safety is a federal responsibility. As far as oversight of the railway system, there’s no jurisdictional confusion.

        There won’t be a change to industry practices in any substantive way to reduce the risk of this occurring. I am not pessimistic – I just now how industry works.

        Every major transportation accident leads to changes in the industry to prevent recurrence. Sometimes they’re not effective, sometimes they’re not obvious to people. Sometimes they’re not implemented fast enough. But they happen.

        Reply
  4. David Barnes

    Of course the guy doesn’t really care. Why would he care about some bumfuck community that he’s probably never set foot in, let alone met any of the residents. It’s refreshing to see someone being honest in this PR spun, politically correct, emotionless culture. Sure it’s kind of sad, but why would anyone care about people they’ve never met? So much fake commisserating and fake feeling is much more harmful than telling the truth.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Of course the guy doesn’t really care. Why would he care about some bumfuck community that he’s probably never set foot in

      I don’t know that he’s never been there before. Keep in mind MMA Railway is a small network. But more importantly, this “bumfuck community” he’s destroyed is probably what will bring down his company.

      Reply
      1. Stephan B

        I don’t see Edward Burkhardt as not caring at all. This isn’t CN Rail with departments full of lawyers and PR people. This guy is basically all the corporate management the company has. I find it very refreshing that he isn’t hiding behind lawyers and other corporate types spewing illegitimate bullshit. When he finally came to town, he went right into the people head on and answered their questions as best he could. Even the really stupid ones from our “professional” media. He also realizes that business will go on, many people depend on this railway for their livelihoods and it isn’t going away. A horrible mistake has been made and we will eventually know the details. i want to know the truth, not the words some PR flack from downtown Montreal or Chicago or the Quebec government want me to hear.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          He also realizes that business will go on, many people depend on this railway for their livelihoods and it isn’t going away.

          Actually, it probably is. MMA Railway was about worthless before the accident. Burkhardt said he’s worried about bankruptcy, and it’s hard not to see the company go down that path now.

          Reply
    2. Blork

      “Sure it’s kind of sad, but why would anyone care about people they’ve never met?”

      Really? Do you really think you need to have met someone in order to be moved by their horrible death? Are people just statistics to you unless you know them? Jesus, what ever happened to empathy?

      Reply
    3. Mackenna

      Anyone whose policies and decisions leads to mass death and the ruination of a community, and has no genuine remorse, concern or sympathy is a sociopath.

      The tragedy is that people like this run companies.

      It’s “kind of sad” that you regard the victims as “bumfuck” citizens and view this as “kind of sad”.

      Indeed, contrary to your spin, the guy has been completely dishonest about his company’s safety record (one of the worst in the US) and his leadership. If he was honest he’d stand up there and say “I fucked up” which he did. Instead, he spouts empty platitudes and you infer his honesty from his tone.

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        Anyone whose policies and decisions leads to mass death and the ruination of a community,

        We have yet to establish that any policy or decision taken by Edward Burkhardt has led directly or indirectly to this disaster.

        Indeed, contrary to your spin, the guy has been completely dishonest about his company’s safety record (one of the worst in the US)

        Who said its safety record is “one of the worst in the U.S.”? My searches are failing me here. He said this is its first fatal accident, and I haven’t heard anyone contradicting that.

        If he was honest he’d stand up there and say “I fucked up”

        He did say that. A few times. He didn’t use the word “fucked”. He said “We blew it big time.”

        Reply
  5. Dilbert

    “Maybe it’s time we accept that in times of catastrophe, we don’t really want to hear the truth. We want to be comforted by PR professionals whose job it is to distort the truth before it gets to us.”

    Steve, you understand that your job is essentially to take this distorted view, distort it some more, and put it in the paper (or online), right?

    You are only as good as your sources, and clearly, this guy is a much better source than most, so much so that I don’t think the media knows how to handle it. You are use to your stories sort of handed to you pre-chewed, this is raw, not something you have to do very often now.

    Reply
  6. Marc

    “I Understand the Extreme Anger” is on the front page today. Oh really, Burkhardt? On that I call total bullshit. This character doesn’t get, grasp, or understand anything. He’s dismissive and quite frankly, doesn’t care. He only flew over here because the heat was too much to take.

    Burkhardt gave them. Honestly, matter-of-factly, without emotion.

    There is no way you could possibly believe that.

    There are simply no words to describe this guy’s flat-out arrogance.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      He only flew over here because the heat was too much to take.

      Why would someone feeling the heat jump into the fire? He could have easily stayed in Chicago and waited it out.

      Reply
  7. Frank

    yeah. You are missing the point sir

    Blames the firemen.
    contradicted.
    Blames employees.
    contradicted.

    All he thinks about is lawsuits and insurance claims. Thats why he said he would rather do this from his office in chicago than on his phone in megantic. Thats what pisses people off – he doesnt give a damn about how many people died, or anything else – just his own marbles.

    If he did care, he would have taken the first plane available to the region, with hired firemen and recovery workers from his other facilities, hand them over to local authorities to help, inform the population of all actions they are taking, and most importantly, donate a lot of money to the red-cross so that they can help megantic families. Almost 1000 people have no homes now….

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Blames the firemen. contradicted.

      He wasn’t really contradicted. He said they turned off the locomotive, which released the air brakes. It turns out that appears to be exactly what happened. He chose his words poorly, and shouldn’t have laid blame like he did. But what he said they did was right.

      Blames employees. contradicted.

      How was he contradicted here? He said what probably happened is that the hand brakes on the train were not properly applied. That certainly seems to be what happened here.

      All he thinks about is lawsuits and insurance claims.

      Are you insane? He opened himself up to huge legal liability with his statements. If he cared about lawsuits he would have shut the hell up and not said anything.

      If he did care, he would have taken the first plane available to the region, with hired firemen and recovery workers from his other facilities, hand them over to local authorities to help

      Yes, that’s what this situation needed, a bunch of people unfamiliar with the place brought in from other towns, and oh yeah they’re going to be all over a crime scene while employed by the prime suspect in that suspected crime.

      A lot of things sound like they would be very helpful after a disaster, and they turn out to be anything but.

      Reply
      1. Dilbert

        It actually brings up what may be a fatal flaw in the design of trains, which is that they require air in the lines to APPLY the brakes, rather than air to keep them from being applied. The default setting is freewheeling, which is pretty dangerous. As a result, the loco being shut off killed the source of compressed air, and over time the system leaks a little, a little, a little until finally the brakes start to release and you get this result.

        It seems like a tragic design flaw, more than anyone’s particular fault.

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          It actually brings up what may be a fatal flaw in the design of trains, which is that they require air in the lines to APPLY the brakes, rather than air to keep them from being applied.

          That’s definitely not a failsafe system. but that’s why hand brakes are applied. And the hand brakes alone should hold the train in place. Why they didn’t is still a mystery — either they weren’t applied properly or they failed for some reason.

          Reply
          1. Dilbert

            Handbrakes are a bit like the handbrake on a car. They get old, they get worn, whatever… and they don’t work as well as they should. A car (with a manual transmission) has they same basic problem as the train does, which is that it’s default mode is freewheeling, rather than stopped. So if someone screws something up in applying the hand brake, or something in the hand brake doesn’t work as it should, the default is free wheeling.

            The result is what you get here… the train cars freewheeled until they couldn’t make the curve, and away you go.

            Reply
        2. David Forrester

          Good commentary from all.

          Just want to touch on this braking method a bit. This is required contrary to trucks and trailers. Trains are sorted by allowing them to roll down a gentle slope at the sorting yards – in which case brakes are not applied by default. There really is no other solution.

          IN the accident, the hand brakes are supposed to hold the train if the air brakes failed. The engineer says he applied 5 locos and 11 cars which should be enough if the air fails. But it was not. Were they applied? The engineer is a veteran, a highly skilled, talented man who knows what the hell he is doing. He has done it many times before – this is not rocket science. He also pulled out a bunch of cars risking his life to do so after the crash – that is hero stuff to me.

          No, something else failed. Why did the hand brakes fail? Was there a sudden tail wind? a minor earthquake? oil on the brake shoes? not enough tension on the hand brakes? A hand brake unit that failed (broken part or something), too heavy a train for the 16 braked units? Did some kid, some dunderhead, some unknown play around and release the hand brakes at night time? (hey – people do these things – look at the WTC). Sure it sounds crazy, but don’t go blaming the CEO a rail veteran, or the engineer.

          Sure EB blew the press conference, and blaming the engineer was simply wrong at this time. The facts aren’t in.

          Yes everyone is looking for a scapegoat – but that scapegoat is NOT going to solve the tragedy. Blame won’t solve it. It was a series of things that went wrong – almost always is. Putting MMA into bankruptcy won’t solve any problems – maybe making them worse. Sure you might FEEL better, but the town needs the damn RR for survival. MMA won’t be sending any trains in the next 2 months. their revenue stream just dried up. I can’t see them surviving this – sad but true.

          It is time to take a deep breath, cry a lot, put it aside and forgive the errors for your own peace of mind. And come together and do what it takes to get things back on track.

          This is hard medicine, but in the end, it is the only solution, the quickest solution and the best solution. Things happen in life. No God-damn lawyer, law suit, or court will ever repair the mess. It will only exacerbate it by making it live for the next 10 years in painful memories. And people will die by dwelling on the past pain. That is why forgiveness is so utterly needed at this time.

          Dave

          Reply
    2. Stephan B

      “with hired firemen and recovery workers from his other facilities, hand them over to local authorities to help, inform the population of all actions they are taking, and most importantly, donate a lot of money to the red-cross so that they can help megantic families.”

      And what, put it all on his Visa card? The world doesn’t work the way you wish.

      Reply
  8. Jean Naimard

    Here’s an older man who has seen his universe crumble.

    He’s been propping-up derelict rail lines for a long time, and those lines have all been teetering on the brink of oblivion, then a series of small errors and overlooks cascaded into an avalanche of disaster.

    Someone who could keep a straight head throughtout that turmoil could very well be a psychopath, yes.

    But again, the stress of managing several companies in such dire financial conditions, always facing doom and oblivion at any second of the day, must have it’s toll on anyone.

    Whenever he spoke, we saw the self-righteousness many entrepreneurs have clashing with the dire reality of how things are, thanks to the misdeeds of many people you are responsible for.

    He’s not the one who wrote the operations procedures that led to only 15 hand-brakes to be set on a 1.2% grade, he’s not the one who had probably mis set the hand-brakes (how? Not enough, or not hard enough? I don’t think setting a hand-brake on a 100 ton car is as easy as doing it on a Honda Civic…), he’s not the one who scheduled the replacement crew to take the train many hours after the train was stopped at Nantes. Yet he has to wear all those hats and face the music.

    The worse any employee faces is dismissal, while he faces total financial oblivion.

    But such is the life of a leader; they say that victory has many fathers but defeat is an only child; the only child being the super-duper head honcho.

    Despite him looking as much cold-hearted as he is, and even though he cares or not about the doom his train spewed forth, he will still have to face the opprobrium of everyone else for being ultimately responsible for his railroad’s bad deed.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The worse any employee faces is dismissal,

      Well, that, possible criminal charges, lawsuits, a ruined career and the guilt of having caused the deaths of dozens of people.

      Reply
  9. Frank

    I think this is a classic case of damned if you/don’t. Listen, had he shown up on Day 1 and thrown himself to help with food lines or shelter building (assuming he’d not be lynched on the spot) he’d still be knocked down and labelled as an exec trying to save his ass.
    The man we saw yesterday can be best described as a bumpkin. Perhaps he works miracles behind the desk but communication is evidently not his forte. What exactly could he have done/said so that folks would be satisfied? Nothing. Anger/sorrow/desperation cloud one’s rational judgment and ability to separate emotive from pragmatic.

    Reply
  10. Michael Pasternak

    A business of this size (MMA) that doesn’t have a line item called “PR” in its business plan, is a poorly managed business.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      A business of this size (MMA)

      What size do you imagine this company is? It’s a tiny railroad the goes from Maine to Montreal. Its value is about as much as a used sedan. It doesn’t even have a proper web designer, much less a PR team.

      Reply
  11. Mackenna

    Some claim Burkhardt’s insensitive statements are “honest”.

    Honesty would be sharing his actual safety record, which is among the worst in the US. He has not done this. Instead he has stated that this event is a blemish on an otherwise sterling safety record.

    Honesty would be sharing the fact that he decided to cut staff on board all his trains from two individuals to one, and calling this a “safety measure”.

    The man has been entirely dishonest about his record. Some here are trying to pretend he wasn’t coached and that he winged it.

    Of course he was coached. What do you think he spent the first 36 hours not communicating with the town doing? He was on the phone to his lawyers and insurance company. There is no way he went to that town without advice.

    Because the man is an egregious boor he couldn’t help revealing himself. That is more likely the truth.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Of course he was coached. What do you think he spent the first 36 hours not communicating with the town doing?

      Communicating with the media, communicating with his employees at the scene, and trying to figure out what happened.

      Reply
      1. Mackenna

        Pure conjecture on your part.

        Thirty-six hours after the explosions, the mayor of Lac Megantic had yet to hear a word from the company. All of her calls to the company went unanswered and unreturned.

        No CEO who has an ounce of sense enters the fray (like this one) without legal advice.

        As for evidence of Burkhardt’s safety record, the media has been widely reporting it. It doesn’t take much effort to find it but since you can’t I will provide it for you.
        http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/2013/07/09/lac-megantic-explosion-rail-safety_n_3567474.html

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          Thirty-six hours after the explosions, the mayor of Lac Megantic had yet to hear a word from the company. All of her calls to the company went unanswered and unreturned.

          There seems to be a he-said-she-said between Burkhardt and the mayor. Personally, I’m more likely to believe the mayor, but there’s a discrepancy in the stories about his attempts to reach out.

          No CEO who has an ounce of sense enters the fray (like this one) without legal advice.

          I think the entire point here is that Mr. Burkhardt doesn’t have much sense.

          As for evidence of Burkhardt’s safety record, the media has been widely reporting it.

          You said MMA’s safety record was “one of the worst in the US”. The story you link to says its rate of incidents is higher than average, but doesn’t establish that it’s “one of the worst.”

          Reply
  12. Marc Snyder

    We want to be comforted by PR professionals whose job it is to distort the truth before it gets to us.

    I call BS. The PR professional’s job is not to distort the truth before it gets to you (were you refering to journalists or to the public with your use of the word “us”?)

    Any PR professional worth his or her salt would have helped both the company navigate this crisis AND helped journalists and the public understand what the heck was happening. And done it truthfully.

    P.-S. Yes, I work for a PR agency. No, I don’t do media relations. and no, MM&A isn’t a client (nor, AFAIK, are any of its competitors).

    Reply
    1. sam

      Sorry dude, PR people, lawyers, used car salesmen. You get the picture.

      “Any PR professional worth his or her salt would have” lied to the public. Plain and simple.

      Reply
      1. Fagstein Post author

        “Any PR professional worth his or her salt would have” lied to the public. Plain and simple.

        Well, no. PR people don’t do that, because lies are easily disproven and make people look really bad. What PR people do is highlight the positive and minimize the negative. They don’t lie.

        Reply
  13. Johnny Ratwork

    Your recounting of Burkhardt’s behavior is factually incorrect. His first comment, made from Chicago Sunday, was that he ‘had evidence’ that some one had ‘tampered with’ the parked locomotive. The next day he blamed the Nantes fire department, who in the absence of the engineer extinguished a fire on one of the locomotives, for not realizing that a locomotive must be idling for its air-brakes to maintain their functioning. He didn’t mention that multiple other hand brakes should also have been engaged. Then the day after that he said it was the engineer’s fault. This last was all two days before he showed up. Is it surprising that people weren’t willing to take seriously or listen to or believe anything he said after trying to weasel his way out of any responsibility, and did that from a distance while by his own admission not having the facts. “Oh, I don’t have the facts, but I’m sure it wasn’t our fault” is basically what he said. So the issue doesn’t have to do with poor PR skills or execution it has to do with evading responsibility before having the facts. He seems like the typical bad CEO who expects not to take responsibility he himself has caused by the appalling practices and policies, in this case safety measures, of the company under his direction in order to maximise profits. Poor practices evidenced by the regulatory sanctions of other railways under his direction previously. So your version of events begins with his arrival in Lac Megantic and you don’t seem to be aware of how he himself had already poisoned the waters, both literally and figuratively, before his arrival. Who would want to give him a chance to speak under those circumstances. Besides the mayor of Lac Megantic denied that she put off their meeting. It seems Burkhardt just didn’t want to go, so he lied, again. And you report his lie as truth. Maybe you should read up a bit before writing. Is it because you don’t read french? All this information is available in english as well but maybe it’s not on mainstream U.S, sources and heaven forbid you should do a little bit of research in local sources. I’m not impressed. Your blog seems to be about poor PR when the story here is corporate irresponsibility and tragic real-world consequences. While these consequences are much more striking and immediate than the banking scandals of the late recession I feel they are of a piece. A really big story that attaches to this whole thing is the sociopathy of the CEO class as a whole because Burkhardt sounds and behaves like I imagine a sociopath does to me.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      His first comment, made from Chicago Sunday, was that he ‘had evidence’ that some one had ‘tampered with’ the parked locomotive.

      And, in fact, it had, though “tampered with” was a horrible choice of words to describe what happened.

      Then the day after that he said it was the engineer’s fault.

      That certainly seems to be the way this is going, no?

      “Oh, I don’t have the facts, but I’m sure it wasn’t our fault” is basically what he said.

      Except that’s not what he said. Because whether it’s the engineer or the track manager or the dispatcher or anyone else who works for the company, it’s the company’s fault. People seem to be missing that blaming it on the engineer doesn’t absolve the company of responsibility, it opens the company up to huge lawsuits.

      He seems like the typical bad CEO who expects not to take responsibility he himself has caused by the appalling practices and policies, in this case safety measures, of the company under his direction in order to maximise profits.

      Exactly what “appalling practices and policies, in this case safety measures” are we talking about here? There’s a debate to be had about one-person train crews, though I’ve heard nothing to suggest that having a two-person crew would have prevented this. Otherwise, what safety measures has the company refused to implement, or implemented badly?

      A really big story that attaches to this whole thing is the sociopathy of the CEO class as a whole

      I’m curious how you define “the CEO class”. Is anyone who runs a company part of the CEO class? Or just the 1% richest? Anyone who earns more than $1 million a year?

      Reply
  14. samual

    It was surprising that he came to the town at all, he even joked about wearing a bullet proof vest. Although he did not seem to be compassionate about the people, his statements were raw, but he faced the crowd.

    People want explanations, why such thing happened, yes we know there were no brakes, but why would someone decide not to apply the brakes, is it because it takes too long, or someone else was supposed to do it, etc why? and who is supposed to ensure the safety of trains carrying dangerous substance? We cannot blame this accident on one person alone. Are municipalities informed about the safety that trains are obliged to have, who watches over it? The tracks were in bad shape, who is supposed to inspect and force maintenance? Who allows such trains to go through villages ? Do the oil companies who pay for transportation verify that the transporter has good safety standards ?

    MMA boss blamed the accident on the engineer saying there would be criminal charges and that he was being suspended.
    The engineer rushed back to the scene and risked his life trying to pull away wagons, unlike the captain of the Costa Concordia who left the ship abandoning passengers and crew, the engineer showed courage and acted as a hero, he knew some of the people and he cared, he is in great distress over what happened. I do not think it is that important at this point what MMA boss said, the tragedy could have been prevented , and we need to take action to ensure that it will not happen again. When things do not seem right, each one of us has a responsibility to stand up and to say no.

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      Based on what I’ve read so far:

      why would someone decide not to apply the brakes, is it because it takes too long, or someone else was supposed to do it, etc why?

      We still don’t know whether or not the brakes were properly applied, but we’re assuming that they weren’t if the train moved. We do know that the manual brakes were applied to the locomotives.

      and who is supposed to ensure the safety of trains carrying dangerous substance?

      The same people who ensure safety of trains not carrying dangerous substances. (And whether crude oil is considered a “dangerous substance” is a matter of opinion.)

      Are municipalities informed about the safety that trains are obliged to have, who watches over it?

      Municipalities aren’t really informed much more than the general public about trains that go through them. Many are in the process of lobbying so they at least know what kind of potentially hazardous substances pass through their communities, so they can plan in case of an emergency.

      The tracks were in bad shape, who is supposed to inspect and force maintenance?

      The company manages the tracks, and Transport Canada regulates it. Issues have been raised about the state of the tracks, but there’s no evidence that the state of the tracks had anything to do with the derailment.

      Who allows such trains to go through villages ?

      No one disallows it.

      Do the oil companies who pay for transportation verify that the transporter has good safety standards ?

      That’s not their job. It’s Transport Canada that regulates transport safety standards.

      Reply

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