Focus on Victims, the Truth in Crisis Response

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

A Union Pacific spokesman apologized for the “inconvenience” of an oil train derailment in Mosier that closed a school, shut down a sewer system, drained the water supply and leaked into the Columbia River.

Jim Lukaszewski, who bills himself as “America’s crisis guru,” says crises breed “mindless commentary” by the media and often other PR professionals. “They didn’t act fast enough.” “They didn’t have a crisis plan capable of responding to something of this magnitude.” “The response should have been executed much more cleanly with fewer hiccups.”

“Total nonsense,” Lukaszewski says. “Crises are always messy, sloppy, stupidly expensive and miserable affairs to manage. Mistakes are constantly made in responding.”

His point: Forget the criticism, which is inevitable, and focus on reacting fast and communicating. Make what you say rise above “bloviation,” focus on victims and share the truth.

Some of the most tempting bait for crisis response ridicule is how long it takes for remedial action. Lukaszewski pointed to the 120 days it took BP to shut off its Gulf of Mexico oil leak, which invited criticism from the highest levels. In the absence of credible and frank crisis response, news agencies hired their own underwater teams to capture images of the leak.

Wishing it would take less time isn’t an effective crisis response. Explaining as honestly as possible what and how long remediation will take would have been the most appropriate approach, even if it still courted criticism. Better yet, perhaps BP should have hired the underwater crew to monitor its response, missteps and all.

The most immediate response that matters, according to Lukaszewski, is caring for victims. You can earn a lot of goodwill for sensitively addressing crisis impacts on neighbors, employees or customers. These are actions you can show with real-time tweets, video and live streaming that counter negative imagery arising from the crisis. There are almost the only actions you can control in a crisis.

Lukaszewski warns against going silent when a crisis hits.  “Silence is always the most toxic strategy choice,” he says. “There is no rational excuse for silence by honorable companies. Silence becomes the focus of the coverage,” even if the crisis response is “splendid."

The Union Pacific oil train derailment in Mosier serves as a good local example of what Lukaszewski calls "bungled crisis communication.” A UP spokesman issued a timely statement that apologized for the “inconvenience” of the derailment, which resulted in burning overturned railcars and an oil spill into the Columbia River.

The word “inconvenience” appended to an apology seemed woefully inadequate. UP failed to mention damage to Mosier’s water and sewer systems. Sewers were shut off and the water system was dry. UP also failed to acknowledge the disruption to the community, which was scary for a nearby school and costly for local merchants.

There was no way UP could escape scathing criticism for the derailment and subsequent oil leaks. But it could have gained some respect by an early acknowledgement of the damage that had been done and its commitment to make things right. Instead, UP’s actions seemed more intent on clearing the track to resume train traffic.

A good strategy would have been to have people with UP jackets or vests omnipresent in Mosier, listening, monitoring teams assessing damage and doing whatever possible to demonstrate regret for the accident, not just the inconvenience caused by the accident.

A glance at UP’s Twitter feed revealed no tweets about the derailment or Mosier cleanup efforts. Instead there were tweets about UP’s online Railroad Trivia, including who was president of the railroad in 1906.

As Lukaszewski says, it is hard to plan for a major crisis. They always stumble in unexpected directions. But what you can plan for is dealing with the crisis as honestly, quickly and with as much care as possible. That doesn't take training or a crisis play, just guts and determination.