A Crisis Communications Train Wreck
The East Palestine, Ohio train derailment is set to become one of the year’s most interesting case studies in crisis communications. On February 3, a Norfolk Southern train transporting hazardous chemicals derailed, releasing carcinogenic chemicals into the Ohio community’s air and waterways. This crisis demanded a strong, coordinated and compassionate communications response, as a company’s operations directly risked the health of an entire community and local wildlife.
As cleanup continues and more information comes to light, what can we learn from the emergency through a crisis communications lens?
Make a Proactive Communications Plan
A crisis such as this is a worst-case scenario for an organization that no company ever hopes to find itself in. However, ignorance and avoidance only make a terrible situation worse. This is why it is so crucial for organizations to have a crisis communications plan and crisis management planning for specific scenarios.
Norfolk Southern’s initial reflexes were sharp. They were the first to send in responders who, noticing the spread of contaminants into further water systems, set up dams and barriers against the pollutants – but their sound action plan lacked alignment with a communications plan. While the community was scared and looking for answers, Norfolk failed to provide a voice that was either cohesive or timely, which further stoked the community’s fear and anger.
Although Norfolk Southern is the face of this crisis, there are multiple stakeholders involved, including government officials, law enforcement, healthcare officials, environmental officials, community leaders, and others who need to be concerned. Most crisis management plans include a communications matrix that outlines individuals who must be a part of the response, and in this scenario, an external communications matrix would have built the infrastructure to create a unified, coordinated response that would have prevented a significant amount of misinformation and mistrust.
Be Responsive and an Active Participant
In today’s digital world, information is shared instantly and often goes viral in mere moments. If you don’t take control of the narrative, you risk falling behind the story and letting social media, news media, or others set the pace and control the story. While Norfolk Southern was first-on-the-scene to control how far the chemicals spread, it did not control the narrative nor spread of misinformation, and other response leaders, such as government officials, law enforcement, and environmental and health agencies, committed the same missteps.
Rather than various stakeholders having short, disjointed, and uncoordinated statements, the response leaders should have coordinated their responses to know who would own what aspects of the crisis communications. Additionally, Norfolk Southern had an excellent opportunity to address the situation directly at a town hall event. However, the company pulled out of the town hall due to concerns over a “growing physical threat” to its employees, but it still could have been in attendance remotely.
Not only would their attendance and an organized message have provided clarity, it would have created a depth of sincerity that their distance to the situation couldn’t provide. Rather than having a communications team and spokespersons on the ground, the company issued statements that ranged from medical warnings to reassurances that the water was safe to drink from virtual meeting rooms and newsroom sets. The response lacked a general compassion which took neither seriously nor warmly any of the valid concerns held by the community.
Take Responsibility and Ownership
While it’s understandable that there would be concerns over taking responsibility for a crisis of this scale, deflecting and deferring responsibility to other entities eroded the little trust that was left with the community. Norfolk Southern noted that they were unclear who owned what message, which, again, should have been part of a crisis communications plan. The quickest way to get ahead of a crisis is to address it directly, and the lack of effective communication, ownership, and responsibility led to rampant mistrust and misinformation.
In avoiding ownership the company made another key misstep – they avoided empathy. In the face of a community which was fearing for its safety and looking for answers, Norfolk Southern offered only a stoic quietude, characterized chiefly by the emotional impulse of liability concerns. While the residents of East Palestine saw oil in their waterbeds and fish dying in the creeks, their own health concerns were dismissed by the company. Instead of a response that affirmed and reassured the community, Norfolk Southern took a defensive stance and deferred to EPA statements. Left without validation, the community's fear, confusion, and anger led to further villainization of the company.
Norfolk Southern is correcting course and taking leadership in cleanup and response efforts, but it was very clearly caught flat-footed by this crisis. A company of this scale, operating with dangerous chemicals, should have been better prepared for this incident. While Norfolk Southern does not shoulder 100% of the blame, its ineffective communications only worsened a terrible situation.