CEO’s crisis comms gone wrong: 9 lessons learned

When a train derailed in the Quebec town of Lac-Mégantic in early July, the chairman of the railway company handled the crisis poorly. Follow these tips to avoid his mistakes.


When a crisis happens, company officials need to respond quickly. In a major crisis, you should talk with the media within one hour of its onset. Spokespeople must have media training and be flawless in news conferences.

One might consider the CEO in the video below a train wreck. Edward Burkhardt, chairman of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways, waited five days before he visited the crash site and made a statement to the media about the horrible train derailment that destroyed a significant part of downtown Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, that killed 50 people.

His statement lacked a significant, quotable apology to those affected, and focused too much on the technical aspects of dealing with insurance, finances and monetary issues. He even began his statement by defending himself as a compassionate person.

The CEO does not always need to be the spokesperson in a crisis. However, a crisis this big demands an appearance and statement within 24 hours of the onset of the crisis.

True, a CEO should spend more time managing the crisis and running the company than trying to be a spokesperson, but a crisis this big demanded at least a few hours to talk with the media and the families who lost loved ones. News reports indicate that at the time of the news briefing, the CEO had not reached out to families.

Watch Burkhardt’s news conference to decide how you or your CEO would handle a similar event:

Burkhardt needs a strong media training course.

Lessons to learn:

1. Have someone make a statement within one hour. The CEO does not need to be the first person to speak in the first hour, but in an event this horrific, the CEO should speak by the end of the first business day. A public relations person can speak in the first hour of the crisis, and a subject matter expert should speak within the second.

2. Know that personality affects a person’s performance. Those with technical backgrounds can be horrible in adlib situations. This CEO appears to have a technical mind, like an engineer or accountant. Your media trainer must understand the difficulties of training technical people, and help them become good spokespeople.

3. Know that rambling adlibs never work. Start with a written statement that contains powerful quotes and compassion for the dead and their families.

4. Practice before the news conference. Never wing it. If you wing it, you will crash and burn.

5. Be compassionate for those who lost loved ones. Those who lost loved ones don’t care about your insurance, clients or financial woes.

6. Keep your skills sharp. Every spokesperson should attend a media training refresher course at least once a year.

7. Have a plan. Every company must write a crisis communications plan on a clear sunny day to be able to weather the darkest day.

8. Write news releases in advance. Pre-written news releases must make up a significant part of your crisis communications plan.

9. Be prepared. You’ll have a better chance of success during a crisis if you have at least one crisis communication drill every year.

A version of this article originally appeared on the Braud Communications blog.

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