This CEO is a Train Wreck: 9 Crisis Communication Lessons You Can Learn

By Gerard Braud

Trainwreck CEO

Click image to watch video

Crisis communications requires fast comment from company officials when a crisis happens. The spokespeople must also have media training and must be flawless in their news conference.

In a major crisis, you should be talking with the media within one hour or less of the onset of the crisis. The CEO featured in the link below might be considered a “train wreck.” He has waited 5 days before making a statement after a horrible train derailment that resulted in a fireball and explosion that has destroyed a significant part of downtown Lac-Magantic, Quebec. To date, 15 people are dead, while 35 people are still missing.

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Edward Burkhardt, CEO of Montreal, Maine & Atlantic Railways waited 5 days before visiting the crash site and making a statement to the media. His statement lacks a significant, quotable apology to those affected, while focusing too much on the technical aspects of dealing with insurance, finances and monetary issues. He even begins his statement by defending whether he is a compassionate person.

True, the CEO does not always need to be the spokesperson in every crisis. However, a crisis this big demands an appearance and statement within 24 hours of the onset of the crisis.

True, I believe a CEO should spend more time managing the crisis and running the company than trying to be a spokesperson, but a crisis this big demands at least a few hours to talk with the media and the families who have lost loved ones. News reports indicate that at the time of the news briefing, the CEO had not reached out to families.

Watch the video of the CEO’s news conference to decide how you or your CEO would handle a similar event.

My initial viewing says this CEO needs a strong media training course.

Lessons to learn:

1) The CEO does not to be the first person to speak in the first hour, but in an event this horrific, the CEO should speak by the end of the first business day of the tragedy. A public relations person can speak in the first hour, while a subject matter expert should speak within the second hour of the crisis.

2) Personality affects a person’s performance. Those with a technical background can be horrible in adlib situations. This CEO appears to have a technical mind like an engineer or accountant. Your media trainer must understand the difficulties of training technical people and must help them become good spokespeople.

3) Rambling adlibs never work. Start with a written statement containing powerful quotes and powerful compassion for the dead and their families.

4) Practice before the news conference. Never wing it. If you wing it, you crash and burn.

5) Those who have lost loved ones don’t care about your insurance, your clients, or your financial woes.

6) Every spokesperson should attend a media training refresher course at least once a year.

7) Every company must have a properly written crisis communications plan, constructed on a clear sunny day, in order to be able to weather your darkest day.

8) Pre-written news releases must make up a significant part of your crisis communication plan.

9) Success during your crisis is higher when you have at least one crisis communication drill every year.