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What Burkhardt could, and should, have done differently

Ed Shiller

Ed's Blog

Edward Burkhardt, the chair of Montreal, Maine and Atlantic Railways, held an impromptu news conference following the train explosion that killed 47 people and devastated the Quebec town of Lac Megantic on July 6. The media encounter took place on a street in Lac Megantic, with dozens of townspeople looking on. Unfortunately, Burkhardt added fuel to an already raging controversy. Here’s why:

• Waiting nearly five days before visiting Lac Megantic. He should have visited the town immediately following the accident, regardless of the important business that he said kept him in Chicago.

• Speaking only in English in a francophone community in which many residents do not understand English. He should have brought along an interpreter. He might also have delivered a phrase or two in French.

• Asserting that "we, employees, our board and management, are all victims of what happened." This statement made Burkhardt appear insensitive to the suffering of the people of Lac Megantic.

• Attempting humor when asked about how wealthy he was by proclaiming “A whole lot less than I was Saturday.” The question seemed to come out of left field (though given the circumstances, one would expect the media to pursue any avenue of attack), but deflecting it by attempting clever humor only added to a perception of callousness. I don’t believe that his financial worth is really any of our business, though for Burkhardt to say this would probably be worse than the answer he actually gave. An alternative might have been to say something along the lines of: “Right now, my concern is about the wellbeing of the people of Lac Megantic and how we can rebuild this community.” Ok, I admit that this answer is also a deflection insofar as it does not explicitly address the question about Burkhardt’s wealth. But I would choose it as the lesser of evils.

• Blaming the accident on the train’s engineer. Burkhardt said the employee improperly set the brake, thus allowing the unattended train, carrying a large quantity of oil, to roll at increasing speed into the center of town, where it exploded. Burkhardt also announced that the employee had been suspended without pay. Whatever Burkhardt’s initial beliefs about the cause of the accident, he should have not speculated publicly about them. Finding the cause and fixing responsibility is the job of the formal investigation. Accusing the engineer only made it appear that Burkhardt was looking for a scapegoat.

• Criticizing the local fire department for a lack of expertise in fighting train fires. This added to the perception that Burkhardt was looking for scapegoats.

• Berating a reporter who asked him why had hadn’t apologized for the accident. Burkhardt, now clearly annoyed, chastised the reporter for not listening to the many earlier apologies he had made, and then issued what he called another “abject apology.” What really matters here is that Burkhardt’s behavior did not project true remorse, thus diminishing the credibility of the apology. He would have been much better off if he had simply answered the question along the lines of: “I offer my deepest condolences to the families of those who perished in the explosion and apologize to the community of Lac Megantic for this terrible tragedy.” It would have been even better had he said this in French: J'offre mes plus sincères condoléances aux familles de ceux qui ont péri dans l'explosion et présente mes excuses à la communauté de Lac-Mégantic pour cette terrible tragédie.

 


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