How Philadelphia's mayor bungled the Amtrak crisis response

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter started out strong in his first press conference after last Tuesday night's Amtrak crash, but things unraveled from there.

Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter prepares to go on-air with CNN host Chris Cuomo. (Image via twitter account of Jennifer Crandall, deputy press secretary for Nutter).
Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter prepares to go on-air with CNN host Chris Cuomo. (Image via twitter account of Jennifer Crandall, deputy press secretary for Nutter).

Few know the name Eric Rudolph. But those old enough to recall certainly know the late Richard Jewell.

In 1996, Rudolph was responsible for 111 injuries and two fatalities when he placed a backpack with three pipe bombs in Atlanta’s Centennial Olympic Park.

Jewell, a security guard, discovered the backpack, alerted police, and helped to evacuate the area, saving untold lives during the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. Yet, most recall that he went from hero to suspect almost overnight when he was named "a person of interest." Late-night talk-show hosts unmercifully poked fun at Jewell while the public, with the help of the media, tried and convicted an innocent man in the count of public opinion.

Memories of Jewell went through my head when I heard Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter on CNN, speaking about the engineer of Amtrak train 188.

"You almost have to be an idiot to — even if you are trying to make up time, to be doing 106 on a curve…you don’t do reckless things. You don’t endanger passengers….I am sure the seven people who lost their lives that we have confirmed, I’m sure they would not have minded being another 20, 25, 30 minutes late, as opposed to dying unnecessarily in a train wreck."

The investigation into Amtrak 188 was not even a day old; it was irresponsible for the mayor to make such an incendiary remark – keeping in mind that some families were just learning the fate of loved ones. At an earlier press conference, Nutter chided the press for asking questions about the speed of the train, saying it was too soon and people needed to refrain from jumping to conclusions. 

I know Nutter and like him very much: his expressiveness and authenticity are natural draws. But as often is the case, a leader’s day-to-day strengths can be his greatest weaknesses when it comes to managing a crisis. He alluded to it himself when he said his approach with the media "terrifies his colleagues in the press office."

The mayor’s first press conference was an impromptu gathering near the scene of that accident and by far his best. There, he did what needed to be done: provide data. He deftly walked through the city’s response, including the number of apparatuses and personnel on the scene, as well as providing a preliminary number of known fatalities. 

But as the crisis unfolded, the mayor seemed to lose his handle on the situation when it came to his communication. His posture turned condescending, press conferences were incongruent, and the information journalists needed to do their jobs was lacking, scattered, and too infrequent.

Too often officials get off on the wrong foot with the press. I attribute this to a lack of appreciation for the job they have to do, including their obligation to keep the public informed.

In cases of public safety and emergency response, I judge public officials on how accurately and timely they distribute information. Bonus points are given to those with a sense of the moment, capable of showing appropriate emotion while offering words of encouragement.

Increasingly, we see the tactic of large, multi-entity press conferences, as we did in Philadelphia. I have no problem with the technique, as it certainly makes it easier for reporters, as long as they are given the information they need. It is best when each of the speakers follows a uniform template: what we know; what we are doing; what is next. 

But what I am not crazy about is the trend of having elected officials do more than they should at press conferences, all in the name of leadership. One can still lead by thanking first responders and other officials for their support, providing words of empathy and encouragement, and delivering important public service announcements; it is perfectly appropriate to then turn it over to spokespersons for the relevant parties. 

Remarkably, as the final body was being removed from the wreckage, Nutter and others held their final joint press conference. Heads of agencies congratulated themselves for their response, even before the final fatality was identified. It was a tone-deaf display of insensitivity. The press conference offered reporters little in the way of useable information. 

From Nutter’s excellent availability the night of the accident to the final embarrassment, things got progressively worse. It is inevitable that mistakes are made in a crisis, but one would hope that the response would improve over time rather than deteriorate as it did in this instance. 

For those who think this kind of analysis is sport, I offer that it is part of the process. Whether it is a "post-mortem" or an "after-action report," analyzing crises is how we learn and develop the skills and tools to do better in the future. 

Knowing Mayor Nutter as I do, I am certain that he is doing his own analysis, and I expect that if there is another situation, we will see a much improved response. 

Dan Hill is president of Ervin/Hill Strategy.

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