Slow Train to Disaster: Why Transparency Matters in a Crisis

In early February, a 1.7 mile long freight train carrying many wagons of hazardous chemicals derailed in East Palestine, Ohio, causing a massive fire and releasing clouds of toxic fumes into the atmosphere, while spillages polluted a local waterway. As part of the cleanup, the rail company Norfolk Southern then had to run a ‘controlled burn’ of five of the wagons carrying vinyl chloride, in order to prevent a possible explosion. This is a chemical which can remain in the environment for a long time, and which has been linked to an increased risk of cancer in the liver, brain, lungs, and blood. Norfolk Southern’s response has turned into a classic ‘how not to do it’ manual of crisis communications, and there are many lessons to be learned; far from fading away, the story has become bigger and bigger.
East Palestine residents were naturally worried about the impact on their health and whether their water is safe to drink. Many reported adverse effects such as nausea, rashes and headaches. So one of the first jobs of the company should have been to be as open as possible, demonstrate that ‘everything that can be done is being done’, and if possible reassure residents that the health impacts may not be so serious as their worst fears. Instead, at the last minute Norfolk Southern representatives pulled out of a local ‘town hall’ meeting that they had agreed to attend, citing fears for the safety of their staff. This sounded like a weak excuse, especially as there was plenty of security and police presence at the meeting to keep order. It reinforced the impression that the company had plenty to hide and ratcheted up the levels of local anger. Indeed, previous safety breaches have come to light and there have been many calls for improved railroad safety nationally – for example, are current braking systems adequate for a train that is more than one-and-a-half miles long? The US Transportation Secretary has now accused the company of putting profits before safety measures; the law may now be tightened up in response.
NS has belatedly tried to become more open. It has set up a community support fund, promising ‘not to walk away from East Palestine’. Even so its media presence has been minimal and it was more than two weeks after the crash before the company’s CEO actually visited the town.
When we run crisis media training courses, we advise clients that instead of running away from the media, they should think how they could use TV, radio and the press to communicate with the affected community and other stakeholders. It will be tough, especially as you won’t have all the answers, but it’s better than hiding away. Otherwise, disinformation proliferates, while in TV reports there’s a gap where your side of the story should be, which is unlikely to be filled by people sympathetic to your viewpoint. Norfolk Southern has doubtless been told by its lawyers not to apologise, in case that’s seen as admitting liability, leading to more expensive lawsuits. But these are likely to come anyway.

UPDATE 8 MARCH: The pressure continues to build on Norfolk Southern.  Another of its freight trains has derailed, fortunately with no toxic chemicals on board, and the National Transportation Safety Board has launched a special investigation into the company’s organization and safety culture.  NS says it is going to ‘rebuild its safety culture from the ground up’.

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