On July 6, 2013, a horrific train derailment in the quiet Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic killed  47 people and destroyed the downtown core of the town.  One week after the disaster, the Chairman of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway company ‘s (MMA), Ed Burkhardt, showed up in the town. His words and actions broke every rule of crisis response and issues management.

Crisis is a time when leadership either fails miserably by blaming others and playing the victim or succeeds with honour by accepting reality and leading the recovery.  What are the lessons we can learn from Mr. Burkhardt’s bad example?

  1. Be present immediately. When a disaster of this magnitude happens, the first job of the organizations involved is to be present or at least visible. It took Mr. Burkhardt almost three days to even acknowledge the incident.
  2. Express concern/empathy/sympathy with sincerity. When human lives are lost and/or deeply affected or altered. The response needs to reflect the human cost – the words and the facial expression have to match. Mr. Burkhardt appeared to be smiling or smirking when he addressed the media. He showed no empathy toward the people – he just told us how this has affected him. Mr. Burkhardt needed to know that he is not the victim.
  3. Apologize.There are many ways to say you are sorry without accepting blame of giving your lawyers heart attacks. You can even be simply sorry this has happened. Mr. Burkhardt did not apologize
  4. Explain what is being done. In the early stages of any event, there are a lot of unknowns. Admitting to what is known and what isn’t is fine as long as you are able to tell people how an investigation is proceeding. Mr. Burkhardt jumped to conclusions and laid blame – on volunteer fireman, the police, his own employee – even before the heat of the explosion dissipated.
  5. Give people a reason to believe. Maintaining the sincere tone, providing information when it is available, and speaking to possible future actions are all part of helping people believe you are principled and sincere. They may not like what they hear but they will at least appreciate your commitment to make amends. Mr. Burkhardt did not accept responsibility and refused to believe that the blame can be anything but the failings of others.
  6. Continue to be present. /Help Rebuild. The only way that continuity works is if it is tied to affirmative and positive action to prevent a recurrence. Mr. Burkhardt angered people to the point that the authorities were afraid for his safety and had to leave town. The company he led went bankrupt and faced federal charges.  Although he personally was not charged in the incident, many still see him as the face of the disaster.

When responding to a disaster of any type, leaders who follow these six “rules” will be in position to protect and repair their organization’s reputation.