Edward Burkhardt, president and CEO of U.S.-based Rail World, stood on the streets of Lac-Megantic, Que., this week, rambling on about the cause of his company's deadly rail accident and ramping up community anger with every comment.
Burkhardt has been criticized for not getting to the scene of Canada's worst rail accident soon enough; and once there, he was chastised for his thoughtless and uncaring comments. It was clear he was either unprepared or didn't comprehend what he was walking into when he held a news conference in the open air, as grieving family looked on.
As he pointed fingers in various directions, business leaders from coast to coast may be thinking, "How could he be so unprepared and insensitive?"
If you're one of those -- don't be so quick to judge. We're all just a moment and a mistake away from being in his shoes. When you have dealt with crises such as this, you know what does -- and too often doesn't happen -- in the corner suite of corporate offices in the first 48 hours.
Here are the top five mistakes that compound the problem:
1. Upon learning of a crisis, the corporate leaders call a lawyer who, concerned only with the court of law, tells his client to remain mum. That might have worked in the good old days when it took a pony a month to deliver the news, but it doesn't work today when the web delivers it in seconds. What should happen is the corporate leaders call a seasoned media-relations person at the same time they call a lawyer. A good PR person, who has worked in newsrooms for years, knows the court of public opinion will do far more damage today than any court case may do in the distant future.
2. The next common mistake is the corporate team decides to "think about" what needs to be said and then takes hours or sometimes days to come up with something they can all agree on. And if at the end of their first eight-hour day they haven't come up with something pithy, they clock out, go home and decide to reconvene the next morning. While they were all pondering and sleeping on it, the airwaves, the news websites, the printing presses and every citizen journalist blog were filled with unanswered questions and rumours. The information vacuum got quickly filled with everyone else's theories and ideas. In contrast, a smart corporate office would immediately turn the boardroom into a war room and work it like a newsroom. The corporate "news desk" would continually review every piece of information coming in from all their sources -- including staff on the ground, the Internet and their advisers, and respond clearly and honestly to every question. The answers don't have to be perfect and they don't have to cover every detail right away, but they have to start to fill the vacuum.
3. Since the CEO and president knows everything about the company, it's best to have him or her out there answering the questions during a crisis, right? Wrong. It takes a patient, thoughtful and unflappable person to sustain interview after interview. Choosing a public spokesperson is one of the most critical early decisions. If the corporate office knows its CEO is not up to the task, someone needs to stand up early and suggest he or she stand aside and allow a more media-savvy VP to take over.
4. Ignoring politicians who call demanding that the company get in front of the issue is tempting, but ill-advised. No one knows better the wrath of the public than politicians. They are the weather vane of reputation management. If they are calling for you to get in the game, take a hint your reputation is about to take a hit. They'll be the one brandishing the baseball bat. Burkhardt knows this too well, since everyone from Quebec's premier to Lac-Megantic civic leaders have called his tardy response "deplorable" and "unacceptable."
5. After a day of doing interviews with every media outlet that calls, it might seem there's nothing more to be said. The truth is that with every passing hour, new information surfaces and yesterday's comments are now old news. That may mean you'll talk to the same reporters over and over for days. Adopt the practice of responding "early and often" in the first few days.
Unfortunately, there are few good examples in Canada of leaders who've done it right. Nationally, Maple Leaf president and CEO Michael McCain was a textbook case of how to respond appropriately when his company's tainted meat products led to several deaths. This was a business leader who took counsel from public-relations experts as well as lawyers.
When it comes to reputation management, every business leader should adopt the motto of the Boy Scouts and Girl Guides and "be prepared." So if you're a CEO, think of the worst thing that can happen to your company, and then develop a written plan for how you'll handle the event you hope will never come. That plan -- and time spent practising it -- may be the best time and money you've ever spent.
Shirley Muir is a former print and broadcast journalist and president of the PRHouse.