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Handling a Crisis – Is Conrail on the Right Track?

December 10th, 2012

I was telling a class at Wharton last week about the role of story in managing a crisis. I used the recent Conrail incident as a simple lesson about response speed.

What most people fail to realize is that a crisis is a story. There are heroes and villains, victims and perpetrators, characters and settings and rising and falling action – all the elements of narrative.  And in dealing with the media, the one who tells the story first and best controls the story—and their brand reputation.  An analysis of Conrail’s response shows they may have missed this lesson.

The Conrail bridge collapsed in the early dawn, sending four train cars into a creek in Paulsboro, NJ. One of the cars was carrying 180,000 pounds of vinyl chloride, a toxic gas known to burn your lungs and potentially cause cancer.  Commuters in Paulsboro were just getting going as a huge plume of the white gas hovered over the creek and surrounding neighborhoods.

Almost immediately, news reports began to file in. Local, state and federal emergency personnel responded on scene. More than 70 people went to the hospital. A voluntary evacuation zone was established for the area and nearby schools were ordered to immediately take shelter and seal off their buildings.    Families were forced to shelter in place. The EPA, borough officials and emergency crews established a crisis command center. But the public hadn’t heard from Conrail.

National Transportation Safety Board Chairman Deborah Hersman updates the media on Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, about Friday’s derailment of a freight train and bridge collapse over Mantua Creek in Paulsboro, N.J. A preliminary report on the cause of the accident may take two to three weeks, Hersman said.(Photo: Denise Henhoeffer, (Cherry Hill, N.J.) Courier-Post)

It was almost seven hours later, well into the afternoon, before the company issued a statement. “We very much regret the impact on the local community and fully appreciate the effort of emergency response officials. Conrail’s first concern is public safety. Every effort will be made to assure this situation is resolved as safely and quickly as possible,” said Conrail spokesman John Enright. “All aspects of the tracks and bridge and rail cars are part of the investigation.”

A statement is a key tool in a crisis. But it requires speed. I’m sure that Conrail had this kind of statement on file. It would be reasonable to expect them to find it, tailor it, approve it and release within one hour of the incident. Seven hours is simply too long. Three days after the spill, after hundreds of news reports, Conrail made no update to the original statement on their website.

In a time of crisis, perception is reality. If the public perceives that your response is slow or incomplete, they will you think you just don’t care. That perception can ultimately cost millions of dollars and take years to repair – even for B2B companies.

As I look at the patterns in major crisis incidents, I’ve found that success depends more on the response than the scope of the incident. BP learned this lesson well. In the first days of the crisis, then CEO Tony Hayward said, “Reputationally, and in every other way, we will be judged by the quality, intensity, speed and efficacy of our response.”  They were. So will Conrail.

How do you think Conrail is doing? What advice do you have for them?

Posted Under: Crisis Communications, Storytelling
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