Four days may not seem like a lot of time to most people. Yet for the citizens of Lac-Mégantic, a town in Quebec, Canada, four days was three too many. That’s how long it took Ed Burkhardt, CEO of Rail World, Inc., to visit the site where fuel-filled trains, owned by his company, derailed. A series of explosions resulted in part of the town being incinerated. Thousands were evacuated and fifteen fatalities were recorded, though dozens of people remain unaccounted for.
As days passed, the fires were put out, but not the anguish of townspeople. While questions as to the cause of the disaster were likely to remain unanswered until the wreckage could be examined, there was still no official representative from the company to come in and offer assistance, if not hard facts.
That is, until four days later. When Burkhardt eventually made his way to Lac-Mégantic, the town had sufficient time to go from shock to anger. Burkhardt was heckled at his press conference, and the mayor debated whether to even meet with him. “I guess it’s my role to collect all this criticism,” Burkhardt said. It’s a role he brought on himself by waiting too long to show up.
THE PR VERDICT: “F” (Full Fiasco) for Rail World, Inc., and CEO Ed Burkhardt for their perfect example of adding insult to injury.
THE PR TAKEAWAY: When disaster strikes, take action. If your company is involved in risk-inherent business – say, transporting fuel on railways – prepare for the eventuality of trouble. PRs should have prepped Burkhardt to go to the disaster site the very next day. While he couldn’t give concrete answers, he could have assured the townspeople and the media that Rail World, Inc., would do everything it could to assist authorities. With every day’s delay, the company only looked more culpable and less caring: whether discussing train schedules or visits to disaster sites, timing is everything.