Tag Archives: Lac Mégantic

Epic gaffe sees wrong phone number shown on TV to millions

Wrong number appears on screen for Lac Mégantic benefit concert

Wrong number appears on screen for Lac Mégantic benefit concert

It was supposed to be one of those feel-good stories. Artists, touched by the tragic events of Lac-Mégantic, gathered for a benefit concert at the Bell Centre earlier this month. The show was recorded and broadcast in the most popular time slot on Quebec television: primetime on Sunday night.

But what made it extra special was that the unity extended to the TV networks as well. Rather than competing with each other, all four conventional French-language television networks — Radio-Canada, TVA, V and Télé-Québec — aired the same program at the same time. If you lived in some of Quebec’s regions with only an antenna for TV service, you had nothing else on TV to watch but this show.

For TVA and Radio-Canada specifically, whose Sunday night wars have both of them reaching millions of Quebec homes (and making television here better as a result), it was particularly touching.

And it all would have gone off great, except for one simple mistake.

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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.

The disaster sympathy photo op

I’ve never survived a major disaster. At least, not to the point of needing help from an organization like the Red Cross. The only thing that comes close is the ice storm of 1998, during which my home, like many others, lost power for an extended period. After the lack of power combined with the drop in temperature made our home inhabitable, my family moved in with an uncle in Laval who still had power. Others in the extended family did the same, so we had a sort of extended family reunion for a while. It only lasted a couple of days, and it was inconvenient more than it was scary. The only loss our family experienced from the event was the food that spoiled.

So I can’t really put myself in the shoes of the people of Lac Mégantic today, or those of southern Alberta in the past few weeks, or people in any other emergency situation in which lives have been lost, homes destroyed and other damage — physical, mental and economic — impossible to calculate.

Another thing I can’t see myself doing is dragging a camera behind me as I talk to people who have just lost loved ones, trying to show my best sympathetic face. It’s not that I think this is wrong, or that I don’t sincerely feel for these people, but it just feels fake, like it’s all being done for people’s entertainment, even if that might not be the case (and even if many people involved in the disaster actually really want to talk to the media and get their message out).

On Sunday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited Lac Mégantic. A press release sent out in the morning said there would be a “photo opportunity” for accredited media and then a press conference an hour later. I had already wondered about the usefulness of political leaders rushing to disaster sites, but the fact that his visit literally called for a photo op bugged me.

It’s not just Harper, though. Pauline Marois had been there the night before. Thomas Mulcair also went down, doing his best to remind us why we hate politicians. All three made themselves visible to the cameras.

Was there a purpose to this, other than political? Was it just to avoid the optics of not being there?

Not having survived a natural disaster (and not being in Lac Mégantic currently), I don’t know if it’s reassuring to the residents that political leaders come to town like this. I imagine it must at least be reassuring that they’re taking the situation seriously. Though that’s tempered when those politicians disappear just as quickly as they appeared.

And there’s the downside. The higher up you go in terms of political power, the more overhead is required for a visit like this. Everything from public relations to security. Could some of that effort be better used helping the community in a more tangible way? Or worse, could this all be disruptive to rescue and recovery efforts? Especially when the prime minister of Canada isn’t really coordinating anything directly relevant here?

I honestly don’t know what to think. I’m one of those people who believes that political leaders are as important for the power of their words as their intelligence or accounting skills. And I know that if I was a political leader, I would want to be where things are happening, if only to see what’s going on for myself, to inform any decisions I would make that would affect that community, and to offer whatever emotional help I could to people who have gone through so much.

But still, I can’t shake that feeling that this is all just for show. And it’s not just because of that press release for the photo op.

Sad, sympathetic anchors

It’s not just political leaders that have been putting on a show for the cameras in the wake of this disaster. The news media has been making a big splash of this as well, beyond just covering it like the big story that it is. On Monday, CTV and CBC both co-anchored their local newscasts from Lac Mégantic, with one anchor just outside the evacuation zone, presenting stories about the aftermath of the disaster (including interviews they did themselves), and another anchor in the Montreal studio handling the rest of the news. On Monday night, CTV National News will be anchored from Lac Mégantic.

I’ve never really understood this idea of anchoring newscasts on location. Does it help my understanding of the disaster to see that Lisa LaFlamme has travelled to rural Quebec instead of doing the news from her Toronto studio? Does being on location make her more connected to the story and better able to present it to us? Are the extra costs required to anchor a newscast on location worth the payoff, journalistically? Are the producers of the newscast as focused on presenting us the latest news in the best way possible when they’re distracted by the complicated technical setup? Does Paul Karwatsky and Debra Arbec talking with reporters standing right next to them instead of speaking to them through a double-box screen make them better able to juggle all the information that’s being presented on air?

I don’t know that either. But once again, this looks an awful lot like something put on for show, designed to make us emotionally connected to a story that shouldn’t need help to be dramatic. Like the special graphics they create, and the soft piano music they play when they show those graphics.

It feels like I’m seeing a performance masquerading as action.

I hope I’m wrong.

Journalists: Donate your overtime

I’ve never been one to rush to donate money in the wake of a disaster. Working in a newsroom has desensitized me to a lot of awful things that happen in the world. But I figure the least I could do is refuse to profit off of it.

In 2010, when an earthquake devastated Haiti, Montreal media sprung into action, and devoted extra resources to covering it. I was called in to do an extra shift on overtime, and donated an amount equivalent to that overtime pay to the Red Cross. Unable to travel to the disaster area and do tangible helpful things (I probably would have been a burden more than anything else anyway), I volunteered for them by doing the job that I love, and, as awful as this may sound, during a time when the job is at its most enjoyable, or at least the most rewarding.

On Sunday, I was already scheduled to work, but my boss asked me to stay an extra hour on overtime to better manage the load of stories. I stayed an hour and a half on overtime, which works out to about an extra $100. That money is now in the hands of the Red Cross.

As I did in 2010, I encourage other journalists and those in related professions to do the same. You don’t have to give from your regular salary. But if directly or indirectly you worked paid overtime or got other financial benefit from extra work because of this disaster, consider turning that unexpected extra work into a donation and giving that extra money to people who need it.

The Red Cross has a special fund set up for Lac Mégantic relief. You can donate easily here.

Then, at least, you can be sure that the show you helped put on did some tangible good. That the only people who truly profited from it are those who have suffered the most.