The Best Time to Create a Crisis Communications Plan Was Yesterday

They work in completely different industries, but the very recent experiences of celebrity chef Paula Dean and railway operator Ed Burkhardt illustrate why every company needs a crisis communications plan. Especially in our always-on digital world. Both waited far too long to call in some crisis communications assistance, and are now paying the price. 

Paula Dean: Celebrity Chef from the American South

In Dean’s case, her price is millions of dollars in personal income. 

Until three weeks ago, she was best known for championing Southern American Cooking on three popular Food Network TV shows. For more than a decade, she’d steadily built a personal brand that combined sass, grits, butter, and homespun charm. She and her business team translated this popularity into almost $20M in earnings in 2012, thanks to her shows, multiple restaurants, and a ton of product merchandising and endorsements marketed to middle America.

Hell Hath No Fear Like a Litigious Woman Scorned

Her downfall from this lofty peak has been brutally swift. The catalyst was a May court deposition that was part of a racial and sexual discrimination lawsuit by a former employee. The plaintiff’s lawyer asked her if she had ever used the N-word. She admitted she had. The deposition became public. Dean remained silent while others seized and molded the narrative. It was an easy sell, given the history of White vs. Black racism in America. Completely overlooking ample proof that scandals involving race cause huge (often irrevocable) career harm, it took almost a week for Dean to try to recapture command. Way too late, the barn door was open and the horse’s tail was barely visible in the distance.

Food Network, Walmart, Target, Novo Nordisk, Home Depot, Caesars Entertainment and Smithfield Foods have all terminated business relationships with her. Eight days after her commercial downfall began, she hired Washington D.C. crisis firm Smith & Co, a contrary example to the adage that “good things come to those who wait.” Not when you’re faced with a scandal that can affect your career or business.

Ed Burkhardt: Contemporary Railroad Baron

The crisis for a little-known railway operator is much more recent and still in progress; if he doesn’t get his PR department to dust off their crisis communications plan, it will spin completely out of his control. Ed Burkhardt is the head of Rail World Inc. the parent company of the Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railway (MMA). MMA owns the train that derailed and set fire to the downtown of Lac-Megantic, a small Quebec town shortly after midnight on July 6. 

It would be stunning MMA lacks a crisis communications plans as the derailment was Canada’s 7th runaway train incident since 2006. It’s not as if the PR department would have been planning for something almost unforeseeable. 

As the one-man crew slept in a nearby motel, his 73-car train of tank cars carrying North Dakota shale oil started to move along the downhill grade of the tracks, gaining speed until they started jumping tracks in the town center. The YouTube videos are amazing, if you can ignore the fact that the flames are incinerating dozens of bodies. 

It took something like 36 hours for firefighters to extinguish the flames. It took much longer for RailWorld’s PR Department  to realize that “maybe we should send the boss over for a visit.” (I assume they have a PR or communications department?).

Respond Fast to Crises

The visit finally took place yesterday (Wednesday). Burkhardt showed up, finding himself unsurprisingly in the middle of a bilingual profanity lesson, the residents—quite justifiably—more than a little hostile. My question to Rail World Inc. would be, “what the hell was more important on Monday and Tuesday than Burkhardt making a public apology in person in the town that just lost its downtown and 47 citizens, friends, co-workers, and family members?” All he needed to do was show up, sincerely apologize, and explain that the accident is under investigation. 

Avoid Throwing A Scapegoat Publicly Under the Bus

Instead, he waited four days after the crisis began. When he finally appeared, he made strange proclamations such as “I guess it’s my role to collect all this criticism”. Next, he threw the train’s engineer under the bus (to use a transportation metaphor) by suggesting the engineer was responsible, despite also noting that the man “had a completely clear safety record up until Saturday.”

This is going sideways really fast. Even overseas, the company is losing control of the narrative. This morning, Britain’s Guardian Newspaper published an editorial, “Quebec’s Lac-Mégantic Oil Train Disaster Not Just Tragedy, but Corporate Crime.”

It’s like watching the Paula Deen scandal all over again, except with almost 50 fatalities, and a once-picturesque town resembling the fiery climax to a Jerry Bruckheimer film. The takeaway for everyone leading a company is that you need some kind of crisis communications plan, even if you just start with a list of relevant phone numbers. 

Takeaway for B2B Leadership

Create a crisis communications plan today. When you really need it, it’ll be too late to open a Google Doc and start typing.

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