CAMPAIGNS: Crisis Response - Greyhound races to handle tragedy

Client: Greyhound Lines (Dallas)

PR Team: In-house, with Burson-Marsteller

Campaign: Response to October 3 incident

Time Frame: October 3 - October 24

Budget: Part of normal PR budget



On October 3, 2001 at about 4:15am and about 60 miles outside Nashville,

TN, a Greyhound bus driver was attacked by a passenger. The driver lost

control, and the ensuing accident resulted in six deaths, provoking

immediate speculation that the incident was related to the September 11

terrorist attacks.



Greyhound found itself dealing with a human tragedy, a logistical

transportation problem, and an increasingly skittish public.



Strategy



Once officials at Greyhound became aware of the incident, the first

priority was to make a decision regarding the company's services across

the country, and to mount an internal communications effort to reach out

to the buses still on the road (the company runs about 2,000 buses a

day).



Next, Greyhound needed to communicate the full nature of the situation

to the media, including details of fatalities and injuries. It was

crucial that the company put the incident in its proper context, to

reassure passengers that it was an isolated case not related to

organized terrorism.



Finally, the company wanted to continue its ongoing discussions with the

Department of Transportation (DoT) and the pubic about increasing

security for passengers and drivers.



Tactics



The incident was reported to the Greyhound manager on duty in the early

morning hours of October 3. The chairperson of Greyhound's crisis team

evaluated the details that were available at the time, and decided to

call in a crisis management team, which is always on stand-by.



The team - comprised of staff from such departments as media relations,

customer services, and operations - gathered at the emergency

operation center at Greyhound's headquarters in Dallas. "It's a center

for information, and becomes the focus for any incoming information,"

says Lynn Brown, Greyhound VP of corporate communications.



But complete details about what happened were not available as the

crisis team assembled. However, the company decided to halt all bus

services across the country as a precaution. (The crisis team includes

dispatch personnel who were able to contact the depots and hold buses at

their next stops.) Services were shut down by 9am.



Brown made a statement confirming the incident, and provided a 1-800

number for passenger information. All employees were kept up to date

throughout the day and beyond through the company's intranet and a

dedicated phone line.



Coincidentally, Greyhound CEO Craig Lentzsch was in Washington, DC at

the time, preparing for a conference with Secretary of Transportation

Norman Mineta to discuss ground-transportation safety. Richard Mintz,

chairman of Burson-Marsteller's public affairs practice, was also

working on the DoT meeting.



After learning of the incident, Lentzsch and Mintz went to the DoT, and

were briefed by the FBI and state law enforcement officials.



"In their judgment, it was an isolated act of a deranged individual,"

Brown says. Based on that information, Greyhound decided to resume

service at 1pm, and hold a press conference with Lentzsch in Washington

at the same time. That way, he could confirm that the service was up and

running, and at the same time reassure the country that this incident

was not related to the airplane hijackings of September 11. The company

deferred most of the specific questions to law enforcement

officials.



Results



Media coverage of the incident was widespread, but quickly faded from

the national scope. Greyhound is satisfied with its response to the

crisis: "I think it went very smoothly given the seriousness of the

incident," Brown says.



Editorial coverage of the decision to halt service was largely, but not

entirely, favorable. During the press conference, and in some media

reports that followed, the CEO was asked if he thought he had

overreacted.



"His response was that when he first got word, the information was

sketchy and he wanted to act prudently," says Burson's Mintz. "He said

he would prefer to be criticized for overreacting than for

under-reacting, and he was comfortable with the position."



Future



On October 24, Greyhound released a new set of safety guidelines for its

buses, including the use of additional security guards and cameras,

temporary restrictions on sitting in the front row of seats, and the

distribution of preprogrammed cell phones to drivers.



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