The Lac-Mégantic scrum: inside the making of a villain

Railroad chairman stumbled in response to crisis.

“I-I-I…,” the old man stammered. Barely visible behind a tangle of cameras in Lac-Mégantic, Quebec, Edward Burkhardt struggled to stay calm. As U.S.-based chairman of the Montreal, Maine, and Atlantic (MMA) Railway board of directors, Burkhardt faced a swarm of more than 40 reporters that day, all jockeying for good shots, shouting over one another, demanding answers.

Four days earlier – on July 6, 2013 – MMA’s unmanned, runaway train barreled off the tracks and ripped apart Lac-Mégantic’s downtown core. The 72 cars of crude oil caused a series of deafening explosions that killed 47 people and sent atomic bomb-like mushroom clouds into the night sky. The small town of 6,000 was devastated.

The four days after the crash saw an outpouring of international empathy – the Queen expressed “profound sadness (over the) tragic events that have befallen the town,” as did Prime Minister Stephen Harper and even U.S. President Barack Obama – but chairman Burkhardt kept mostly quiet in his Chicago headquarters. Until now.

Earlier that day, reporters had learned of Burkhardt’s arrival and a scheduled  3 p.m. press conference. Two hours before show time journalists spotted Burkhardt wandering near the media zone, flanked by MMA president Robert Grindrod and fellow board member Yves Bourdon.

Chaos ensued.

Cameras were brandished from the backseats of news cars, swung onto shoulders, and pressed into life. In minutes, the scrum round the rail boss swelled to a sea of limbs and recorders. Little known to Burkhardt, nearly everything he was about to say would spark vitriolic public backlash for weeks to come.

CBC Montreal reporter Raffy Boudjikanian recalls a “camera guy climbing a tree,” to get shots of the frenzy. Boudjikanian’s first impression of Burkhardt was one of a “cold” and “arrogant” man who appeared detached from the havoc his company inflicted on the town.

This view, Boudjikanian said, became the consensus.

There’s an irony here. Burkhardt showed up earlier than his scheduled news conference. He agreed to a near;y hour-long, impromptu scrum – 43 minutes to be exact – yet the media world dismissed him almost unanimously. It is difficult to pity a man whose company is responsible for the deaths of 47 people, but what’s the correct way of responding to tragedy?

Boudjikanian won’t soon forget the day of the scrum. While townspeople looked on angrily, occasionally hurling insults at Burkhardt, reporters’ questions grew increasingly hostile. Why wasn’t he here over the last four days?, one reporter from the Canadian Press demanded.

“Please don’t tell me I’ve not been here when we’re standing right here as close as we can get (to the crash site),” Burkhardt said.

“This is the first day you’re here,” she jabbed.

“I-I-I…,” the old man stammered. “I think I explained earlier I didn’t think there would be any use for me wandering around on the edge of town until the first responders had an opportunity to do their work.”

Things went downhill from there. Burkhardt went on to place blame for the tragedy on the train’s engineer, Tom Harding, and even local firefighters, who extinguished a blaze on the locomotive before it rolled away.

Although he offered his company’s “abject” apologies and said he accepted “some responsibility” for the tragedy, he bristled when a reporter suggested the company didn’t accept “full responsibility” for what had happened.

“People are always putting words in my mouth. Please. I did not say that,” he said.

When a reporter asked him his net worth, he responded with what seemed like a dismissive laugh: “a whole lot less than I was on Saturday.” Later, in a Maclean’s interview, he acknowledged he might have “said the wrong thing” at that moment.

During Burkhardt’s backpedaling a judgment was being shaped. Packaged in print fonts and camera frames, it became the consensus.

“At that point he just looked like he didn’t want (to take) any responsibility,” Boudjikanian said.

It didn’t take long for the scrum to take its place alongside a pantheon of historical PR disasters: British Petroleum CEO Tony Hayward’s handling of the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; JetBlue’s decision in 2007 to leave its passengers stranded on a tarmac for seven hours; and Philip Morris’ 2001 campaign about how governments benefit from the early deaths of smokers.

CNN’s TV headline called Burkhardt “the most despised person in Canada.”

Hostility toward him erupted across various corridors of media.

Contrary to John Baldoni’s criticism in Forbes, for Burkhardt not “expressing sorrow,” Burkhardt told reporters he felt “absolutely awful about this,” and empathized with citizens when he said, “if I lived here, I would be very angry with the company too.”

Joel Balsam, in Vice magazine, called Burkhardt’s response “shitty” and blasted him for leaving town without meeting the mayor. But Lac-Mégantic’s mayor – Colette Roy-Laroche – called off the meeting herself without providing an explanation, according to Burkhardt, something he didn’t blame her for, he said. This was also the reason for Burkhardt’s early arrival in the media zone.

Balsam went on to ask whether or not you “need a team of PR guys to teach genuine compassion?”, as though expressing genuine compassion in front of 40 news crews were the simplest of tasks.

Ed Burkhardt’s Rail World Inc., a rail holding company, owns shares in companies throughout Eastern Europe and the United States.   By: James Jenkinson
A train’s air brakes are at the heart of the investigation. (Photo: James Jenkinson)

According to public relations professionals at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Burkhardt broke a few fundamental rules of crisis management. First, he showed up four days late. During his time in Chicago Burkhardt allowed others to tell his story, one he should have been telling himself. By the time he arrived, the grounds for hostility were already set.

Second, he shouldn’t have assigned blame before investigators did their work. While Burkhardt agreed his company had plenty of responsibility, he proceeded to blame local firefighters who, at the time of the scrum, were still digging through rubble in search of the dead. Burkhardt also said the train’s engineer shared some responsibility and, based on continuing Transportation Safety Board investigations, he may be right about that. But being straightforward is not necessarily the correct route to take when it comes to crisis communications.

Barbara Emodi, communications professor at Mount Saint Vincent University, used Burkhardt’s scrum spectacle as a learning experience for students. She maps out response to crisis with a surprisingly textbook-like response. When tragedy strikes, people will “lay blame, they’ll try and buy time,” she said, which are “intuitive” reactions.

Emodi said handling crises is counter-intuitive, meaning you do it best by acting contrary to your emotions. If it feels wrong and it’s hurting you, it’s probably the right thing to do, she said.

Consider the 1982 Tylenol crisis. When 11 deaths in Chicago were linked to Tylenol capsules, Johnson & Johnson assumed immediate responsibility, though they knew the pills were tampered with. The company didn’t speculate. They didn’t try to place blame. Instead, they took a multi-million dollar hit and pulled every last pill off the shelf, showing more concern for the public than the balance sheet’s bottom line.

Absenteeism and tardiness weren’t Burkhardt’s only problems. The smallest of human features can suddenly become friend or foe when analysts pick apart your every move. Public relations professor Brent King, Emodi’s colleague at Mount Saint Vincent University, points out an “unfortunate trait” of Burkhardt’s face which presents itself as a sort of half-smile, connoting an upbeat demeanour.

CBC Montreal television producer Myriam Tremblay-Sher draws attention to Burkhardt’s cackles of laughter following his replies. This, she thought, added to the negative sentiments taking root in journalists’ minds. Contriteness, King said, is conveyed through one’s posture, persona, and tone, all of which were off for Burkhardt. Shrugging his shoulders while answering questions was probably an instinctive response, but it made him appear casual and unapologetic.

PR people, according to an Oriella PR Network in Ontario study in June 2013, are among the least trusted of journalists’ sources. Only 20 per cent of the 500 journalists surveyed across 14 countries said they trust PR people. CBC national reporter Stephen Puddicombe, who went to the town in the aftermath of the train tragedy, said relations between the two are “like a high school dance, with the girls on one side and the boys on the other.”

That Burkhardt approached the conference in a managerial way, the study suggests, might have also affected the way journalists perceived him. From the start, he directed reporters as though they were his employees – “the big problem that I’m going to have is everybody talking at once here, so please don’t do that.” CEOs are well-trusted by journalists in Germany and France, but Canadian journalists view execs with skepticism.

If Burkhardt had as much experience with media as he had building profitable railways, his reputation might have outlasted that of MMA’s. In 1999 he was named railway man of the year by Railway Age magazine, after more than 10 years of successful rail privatizations in the UK and Eastern Europe. He also managed a successful public offering of Wisconsin Central Railroad in 1991, before playing a major role in the company’s sale to Canadian National in 2001.

Burkhardt’s press appearances before Lac-Mégantic were confined to the sort of corporate commentary related to stock prices, mergers and shareholder disputes.

When I called for an interview, he answered his own phone with “Ed Burkhardt here.” No secretary, no can-you-hold-please. Just dial the digits.

The 75-year-old still starts his workday around 7:30 a.m. He drives a 1991 Buick Regal, which he says recently surpassed the 100,000 mile mark. He scoffs at the image many held of him, in the tragedy’s aftermath, as some sort of billionaire. Still, he does own a lot of shares in a lot of rail companies. He’s a straight-talker, a “prototype male,” who “internalizes that (emotional) stuff”. Because the media expected sugar-coating, he thinks a lot of reporters mistook him for being cold.

Burkhardt, in fact, made a conscious decision not to hire a PR firm. Two days after the infamous scrum, he and his board found themselves on the receiving end of a PR firm’s pitch, an offer to protect MMA’s corporate trademark and name. But Burkhardt had already determined the company’s fate.

MMA would “go into bankruptcy and be sold and liquidated,” so what was the company “trying to accomplish by a bunch of PR guys running around?” he said.

The railroader’s daunting presence left a sea of blank stares in the boardroom.

Burkhardt told me, “You’d be spending money (on PR firms) that was legitimately due to the claimants.”

One might ask oneself: is this the voice of a heartless villain?

There’s no denying Burkhardt came off badly in his Lac-Mégantic debut. He doesn’t know how to take questions, where to look, or how to stay calm. When he talks, he sometimes sounds like he’s regurgitating company logistics at a board meeting; other times his voice cracks, inner emotions surfaces but are then immediately suppressed – “I’m not very good at crying in public.” Burkhardt neither hid behind doublespeak nor faked any tears. His responses were, if nothing else, honest.

The reality of Lac-Mégantic’s media spectacle struck the CBC’s Raffy Boudjikanian upon returning to Montreal. For the first time Boudjikanian was able to step beyond the entanglement of the media consensus and consider whether or not Burkhardt was treated fairly.

Perhaps judgment on Burkhardt was passed too quickly, he thought. Perhaps his unfiltered exterior was the manifestation of a man in shock. Journalists expect authority figures like Burkhardt to show up with some PR guidance, on how to neatly pack statements into 15-second sound bites, and may be frustrated when they can’t.

In a way though, he said, Burkhardt’s unfiltered responses “made it more interesting journalistically.”

Boudjikanian’s ambivalence about Burkhardt persists.

Spring 2014