Rising to a Reputation

Major crashes create the need for big-time crisis responses for those directly responsible, but they also present opportunities for companies indirectly involved to rise to their reputations.An airplane crash in San Francisco and runaway crude oil tanker cars serve as stark reminders of the mayhem that major accidents cause — and the giant need they present for savvy crisis response by those directly and indirectly implicated.

While details still are emerging about what caused each incident, there is no question both represent nightmarish PR problems for Asiana Airlines and the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway. Pilot error appears the cause of the Boeing 777 crash, as the plane was going too slowly as it approached the landing strip and clipped off its tail by hitting a seawall. The 73 tanker cars full of crude oil from North Dakota that plunged downhill into a small Quebec town may have broken loose from a train engine that shut down, releasing its air brakes.

Miraculously, only two people died in the plane crash, though dozens of people were injured, a few critically. There are three reported deaths so far from the train accident, which sent tanker cars into at least 30 buildings and exploded into fires, which spread into nearby homes in Lac-Mégantic, a quiet town of 6,000 residents near the border with Maine.

For Asiana Airlines, and perhaps for the airline industry more generally, the accident will lead to questions about the relatively slim amount of training the pilot had on this aircraft. It also may call into question the utility of a stall warning that apparently didn't leave the pilot or crew enough time to react. Most of all, it will rekindle questions — and fears — about plane safety.

Even though there are no immediate indications of part failures, Boeing should be on alert for scrutiny following its high-profile safety issues involving the 767 Dreamliner. That's the way crises work — they spread out like spilled oil on a beach, potentially fouling everything from sandy beaches to bird nests.

The owners of the Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railway face a huge challenge to rebuild a town its tanker cars literally destroyed, not to mention address the loss of life and injury caused by war-like explosions on a sunny summer night when people were enjoying themselves at downtown bistros.

But so will the shippers of crude oil by train, which are now responsible for moving up to 800,000 barrels per day, up from 9,500 barrels as recently as 2008 before production boomed in North Dakota's Bakken shale fields. It will be particularly difficult for companies such as the joint venture that wants to build a crude oil transfer facility at the Port of Vancouver to explain how it can ensure against fiery accidents such as the one in Quebec.

Big accidents amplify the need for big-time crisis response. Videotaped apologies won't cut it. Senior officials for the airline and railroad directly involved will need to show their faces in the communities affected, show empathy and begin talking about restitution to make things right, even if their lawyers object. They also need to identify steps they will take to prevent accidents like this recurring.

The crisis response by those indirectly implicated — Boeing, North Dakota oil producers and rail shippers of crude oil — is more complicated and requires nuanced, but straightforward responses. Even if pilot error led to the San Francisco airline accident, what can Boeing do to make its planes safer? Despite a potential mechanical glitch that may have unleashed tanker cars on Lac-Mégantic, what can North Dakota oil producers and their allied rail shippers do to prevent train derailments and make tanker cars less prone to explode? 

It may be tempting for companies with indirect involvement to lurk in the shadows until the smoke clears. But that would be missing a chance to turn tragedy into reputation-building opportunity. It also will force people down the line to try to explain away the accidents as aberrations, unfortunate disasters and once-in-a-lifetime occurrences.

Good luck. People don't trust blow-offs like that. They quite properly will be more skeptical. They will want tangible proof of progress. 

For the companies that don't have direct responsibility for the injuries and physical damage caused by the accidents, they still have a moment to seize. For them, it is less about responding to a crisis, then rising to a reputation.

Companies with no involvement may consider weighing in, too. For example, airlines with strong safety records and rigorous pilot training requirements may want to tout them. Oil pipeline companies may point out their advantages over rail shippers. With an audience already paying attention, it is an excellent, if delicate, moment to tell your story.

Death, injury and physical damage demand strong responses, including empathetic, in-person face time with victims and their families and tangible actions to make the situation right.

Update:

There are now 50 reported deaths — and more are feared — from the train accident, which sent tanker cars into at least 30 buildings and exploded into fires, which spread into nearby homes in Lac-Mégantic, a quiet town of 6,000 residents near the border with Maine.