Burkhardt's poor media relations skills making bad situation worse

Photograph by:  John Kenney, The Gazette

Photograph by: John Kenney, The Gazette

It's been just over a month since the deadly train disaster in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, which claimed the lives of 47 people and caused hundreds of millions of dollars in damage. 

Five days after the deadly derailment, Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic, the train company involved in the crash, held an impromptu press conference in the town. Burkhardt was widely criticized by communicators, the media and the public for what appeared to be a completely tone deaf and insensitive response to the unfolding crisis.  

So when the CBC interviewed Burkhardt on July 31, listeners might have assumed the railway executive would have undergone extensive media training and that he might be able to demonstrate some level of sympathy, regret and a commitment to get to the bottom of what caused the disaster to help prevent something like this from happening in the future. 

Unfortunately, what listeners got was more of the same.  

During his interview with CBC Radio's As It Happens, Burkhardt dodged questions about if/when the company would provide funds so desperately needed to help the town clean up the mess and begin the rebuilding process.   

Burkhardt also admitted that his initial trip to Lac-Mégantic, which culminated in the impromptu scrum that went so horribly wrong, was "not successful". He acknowledged that people in the town were incredibly angry and said he understood why they were so unwelcoming toward him.  

After Burkhardt characterizes his visit to the town as a failure, the radio host appears to give the beleaguered railway executive a second chance to convey his message to the people of the community. "What do you want to say to them now that some time has passed?" she asks him. "You've had time to think about this, they've had time to think about this...do you have any message for those people?"

But instead of focusing his words on the people who have been affected by this disaster, Burkhardt says, "Well, I would say that we're all victims of what occurred. Our company has suffered very badly and that's going to go on. I don't put that equal to the 47 people, if that be the number, that have lost their lives in the destruction of that town..." 

At this point, the host cuts him off. "How do you think it goes over with people in Lac-Mégantic to hear you describe yourself and your company as a victim under these circumstances when not only are those deaths you referred to but this is a community that's been just decimated?"  

Burkhardt responds by attacking the host, saying she is "trying to put some words in my mouth, very frankly, that don't belong there."

She responds: "I'm sorry you think that because I heard you say 'victim' and i just want to know how it is you and your company are victims under these circumstances."

Still focusing on his company rather than the true victims of the disaster, Burkhardt says, "This may cost us our company. It may cost us our investment. It may cost our employees their jobs. It may cost the customers that we served in Quebec and in Maine their rail service. It goes on and on."

So much for second chances. 

As the aftermath of this disaster plays out, the company will continue to be in the public spotlight. There will be many more media interviews down the road. As such, Montreal, Maine & Atlantic needs to retain a proper crisis communications firm, invest in intensive media training for Burkhardt or designate a new spokesperson -- one who can properly articulate the company's message. As long as Burkhardt remains the public face of the company (without extensive media training), he will continue to make a bad situation worse.