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?
My feed full of journos suggesting the rail boss needs more media handling suggests to me how unused we are to frank talk in this country.
— Les Perreaux (@perreaux) July 10, 2013
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.