Edward Burkhardt's heart may have been in the right place when he held an impromptu news conference in Lac-Mégantic, Que., but public relations experts say the head of the rail company at the heart of the explosion that devastated the town was ill-prepared and offered a lesson in how not to handle a crisis.
Burkhardt is the chairman and CEO of Chicago-based Rail World Inc., whose subsidiary Montreal Maine & Atlantic Railway Inc. operated the train that ran off the tracks and set off the explosion on July 6. He met the media on the street in Lac-Megantic for 43 minutes on Wednesday.
The news conference was a curious mix of commentary, ranging from personal descriptions — Burkhardt said a person can sleep anywhere if he's tired enough — to an early assessment of what may have happened. Burkhardt blamed the train's engineer for not setting its brakes properly before it rolled into the town and exploded.
At times, he faced jeers from local residents reeling from the weekend tragedy that has so far claimed at least 20 lives and left another people 30 missing.
"I was stupefied when I saw this press conference," Fraser Seitel, a public relations consultant and author, told CBC News from New York. "It was surreal.
"It was a tutorial in what not to do in a crisis. His heart was in the right place but he wasn’t prepared."
The first rule in such situations, Seitel says, is being sensitive and serious. And from his perspective, Burkhardt fell short.
"He was much too informal, too chatty, … too matter-of-fact, not prepared. It was not a good performance for him or his company."
Terry Flynn, an assistant professor of communications management at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., says Burkhardt had several different audiences on Wednesday: the media, the community, the police and a judicial system conducting an investigation and his employees.
'Say as little as possible'
"In my consulting career, I was always mindful of what the lawyers would say: 'Say as little as possible,' and we'd have to balance that with what's in the public interest,” says Flynn.
"Second of all, if I was an employee of this guy, then I'm now concerned about what happens if I do something that's questionable? Will he in fact defend me?"
Flynn says Burkhardt showed some leadership: he came to the town and was fielding questions. And his answers weren’t sugar-coated.
“I think what you want to do is be available. And you want to have the best person that is available there. The CEO is the appropriate person. What people question is whether this guy has the skills to do it," says Flynn.
"You want the person that has the information and the authority, but hopefully you would have somebody that is savvy in terms of communications skills. If he did have communications consultants and lawyers, they're probably cringing right now."
David Eisenstadt, a founding partner of Toronto-based PR consulting firm the Communications Group Inc., said despite Burkhardt's best efforts and genuine concern, he failed to quell the rage of Lac-Mégantic residents.
"As a result, he is being burned during these early days by the people of Lac-Mégantic, possibly unfairly."
Eisenstadt pointed to several apparent communications gaffes by Burkhardt, ranging from inconsistency in his comments to the timing of his appearance in the town.
"He should have been on the scene from the get-go, rather than show up five days after the accident."
Eisenstadt said there's also a language issue in the mix.
"Mr. Burkhardt can be forgiven for not speaking French, but not having a trusted translator by his side was another mistake."
The experts all point to an apparent need for a strategy and help managing the message coming from Burkhardt and the company.
"The man is a Yale-educated railroad …person … and of course he was sincere. But that doesn't mean you can do everything well and in a crisis like this you really need professional advice," says Seitel.
"What this company's got to do immediately is bring somebody in there to advise them, to say, 'Look, we've got to be here in town, we've got to be sensitive to the population, we've got to get this investigation established and concluded, and then talk about what we've found and what we're going to do in the future.'"
Seitel suggests that should happen sooner rather than later.
"They better do that quickly," says Seitel, because Burkhardt’s reputation and that of the company hang in the balance "if they don't smarten up on this public relations aspect."
With files from Daniel Schwartz