Amtrak crash response was just not good enough

The railroad has been rightly pilloried for the unpreparedness and insensitivity of its response to Tuesday's crash in Northern Philadelphia that saw eight people lose their lives and many others injured.

Most companies and organizations nowadays understand that crisis communications is a fundamental part of business planning and that specific procedures must be in place to cope with unexpected events soon after they happen.

The unexpected has to be expected, especially if you are a railroad service such as Amtrak, an airline such as AirAsia, or an energy company such as BP – all of which have suffered catastrophes in recent times.

However, Amtrak’s response to Tuesday’s derailment of one of its trains traveling from Philadelphia to New York City, which resulted in eight fatalities and many injuries, has been widely pilloried from a communications point of view.

First of all, my sympathies go to all those affected by the crash. Every disaster and loss of life is regrettable, but this one was particularly close to home and most of us have traveled on the route where the crash took place.

Indeed, PRWeek ran an event in Washington, DC on Thursday and our people were booked on exactly the same train that evening as the one that crashed on Tuesday, so we are thankful for small mercies in that respect.

However, Amtrak’s crisis communications response had all the hallmarks of ill-preparedness and even insensitivity. Its social media response was tardy, on-the-ground communication was terse and unhelpful, and the overall tone was not good from an optics point of view.

And who thought the day after the fatal crash was a good time to post an ad for a new communications lead headlined "Your success is a train ride away" or to continue to distribute customer satisfaction surveys to Amtrak passengers affected by previous delays?

I’m sure these two events were planned long before the crash, but in situations like this it behooves organizations to talk to each other and for the right arm to know what the left arm is doing, adjusting all communications to reflect the development of events, whether in customer service, human resources, corporate relations, advertising, or from the C-suite.

In a piece of timing that was also unfortunate but couldn't have been prevented, Amtrak's director of PR and coordinator of digital and social media, Julia Quinn, told Monday that her organization had had to decide whether to fish or cut bait when it came to customer service and social media.

"We had to explain that this is happening," she said. "We can either get on board and do a really good job, or we can dig our feet in and hope that customers stop coming to us for customer service needs on social."

Of course, the latter was never going to happen and she told the blog Amtrak brought on and trained about 24 representatives from their call centers to manage social media customer service, with the intention of listening to customers and having a two-way conversation.

One wonders what all those representatives were doing in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday's crash, because they certainly weren't communicating in public to allay fears and provide information.

Perhaps they were waIting for sign-off from Amtrak's lawyers before committing themselves to courses of action and messages that might open them up to liability in the future. But, as former GE CEO Jack Welch told the Arthur W. Page Society Spring Seminar a few weeks back, that is not the right option either.

Welch banged the drum for "authentic truth-telling," and said that "if you lose that, you're dead, whether legal wants you to spin it or someone else wants you to hold back." He urged communicators and CEOs to "tell it with emotion and truth," defining leadership as "truth" and "trust."

Amtrak has certainly lost the trust of PR pro Andrew Brenner, who described to PRWeek how he was traveling in the rear coach of the ill-fated train and found the response of the emergency services to be quick and organized, in stark contrast to the railroad’s approach.

He says he will never again board one of Amtrak’s trains, and this is someone who was planning to commute regularly from DC to New York City and would ordinarily be a core customer for the railroad.

The flaws in Amtrak’s response ranged from bad business practice, such as Brenner's experience, to simple common decency.

The optics of Amtrak’s president and CEO Joe Boardman talking in the immediate aftermath of the crash about the railroad’s safety record and when service on the busy line would be resumed, seemingly over and above the feelings of the victims of the tragedy and their families, were unedifying to say the least.

Boardman attempted to remedy that perception on Thursday, saying the railroad is cooperating fully with authorities and taking full responsibility for the crash. "With truly heavy hearts, we mourn those who died. Their loss leaves holes in the lives of their families and communities," he said on Amtrak's website.

It struck a much better tone. But when are companies and organizations going to learn that effective and immediate communications are a must-have in a crisis, not a nice-to-have?

The person who takes on the communications lead role at Amtrak so unfortunately advertised in the wake of this week’s disaster must put that at the absolute top of their agenda and to-do list.

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