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Rail CEO, Ed Burkhardt, Deserves Praise for Taking Responsibility

07/12/2013 05:25 EDT | Updated 07/12/2013 05:25 EDT

When we turn on the TV and see a business executive or a politician being interviewed, we've come to expect them to be misinformed and poorly briefed, hiding behind big words, spouting Key Messages that make no sense. We have come to expect CEOs who hide behind lawyers. When we get the Real McCoy, we don't know how what to do.

When Ed Burkhardt, chairman and CEO of Montreal Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA), arrived in Lac-Mégantic Wednesday to face the media, he was slammed for being lacking. Some of the comments I heard: "He didn't care," "He didn't speak any French," and "He didn't arrive with any lawyers or PR people in tow."

Quebec Premier Pauline Marois called Burkhard's behaviour "deplorable."

One reporter asked him if he slept well at night -- injecting a "gotcha" moment -- and completely missing the part when Burkhardt explained that he had been doing 20-hour days since the accident, working the phones with his insurance company, operations people, and TSB investigators.

Most importantly, Burkhardt accepted responsibility for the train derailment, saying that it was pretty obvious to him that the MMA Railway was the guilty party; it was their run-away train that caused the disaster. This must have given the MMA's corporate lawyers a conniption.

I was on staff in the Canadian National Railway PR Department during the Edson disaster, on August 12, 1996. (Interestingly, the final report on Edson concluded that the 20 runaway cars moved from the Edson Yard down a grade and onto the main track because insufficient brake shoe force was achieved to overcome the force of gravity.)

And not only do we not know how to respond to a CEO who shows up to actually answer reporters' questions and takes responsibility for an industrial accident, it seems that we had other expectations.

Did we want big drama? Did we want him to breakdown on national TV and have a good cry? Did we want him asking forgiveness of the Lac-Mégantic residents? (And, equally importantly, would those residents have granted forgiveness in their anger, sadness, grief?)

Have we been conditioned to expect this level of theatrics by so many mind-numbing reality TV shows? Must we have sensationalism at all costs?

And, how would that have changed the fact that there was loss of life, loss of jobs, and loss of property in Lac-Mégantic -- devastation that will take years to put right?

The very fact that Ed Burkhardt showed up in person in Lac-Mégantic was exceptional and extraordinary.

MMA Railway did not send a Vice President to handle the bad news. Burkhardt himself showed up without PR people. He showed up without corporate lawyers (who would have advised him to say as little as possible at the very least, and who at most would have advised him not to take any responsibility until the final TSB report is issued, many months from now).

Burkhardt arrived in town on the Wednesday afternoon. He then walked down the street, looking for the crash site and people who wanted to talk. Reporters recognized him and a makeshift table to hold microphones was set up in the middle of a city street. Burkhardt answered questions from the media for 43 minutes and did not stop until every question was answered.

There was no "Media Kit" or other handout PR materials to explain (in very carefully worded and lawyer-vetted language) what happened, in what order, according to the MMA Railway's version of the accident. There was an astonishing and complete lack of "PR spin."

If Burkhardt would have read a prepared statement in French, it is highly likely that he would have been slammed for either a poor translation or poor French pronunciation -- or both.

Unlike the collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Bangladesh, Lac-Mégantic happened here, on Canadian soil. And, it happened to Canadians.

Unlike RBC hiring foreign workers with the intent of replacing Canadian employees, there was loss of life in Lac-Mégantic that may well exceed 50. For sure, it is one of the worst industrial accidents in Canada, ever.

While corporate cultures all across North America strive for clichéd "win-win" scenarios, with industrial accidents it is frequently "lose-lose." There is no magic bullet, no magic pixie dust, no "swish and flick" of Harry Potter wands. We cannot rewind the clock.

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