Today, the NTSB faced the wrath of Congress in a hearing on what went wrong with the Amtrak accident in Frankford. From our perspective, we have also been taking a look at how the incident was handled from a communications standpoint. Of particular interest to us was how did Amtrak handle the crisis and were they scooped by Mayor Nutter who seemed much more visible.
A quick Nexis news search validated our hypothesis that Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter was in front of the media and featured more prominently than Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman in the wake of the horrific crash. Mayor Nutter appeared in over 300 articles, while Boardman was featured in only 213. Representing his city, Nutter was visible and effective in comforting the public, providing condolences to the families, and giving voice to the outrage that many of us felt following the accident. While he had a few missteps, between numerous television appearances, interviews and even a public appearance at 30th Street Station as Amtrak came back online, Nutter largely succeeded in taking control of the situation. And, while he had less at stake than Amtrak, he did achieve all his communications objectives in our estimation.
Perhaps less noticeably, Joseph Boardman, CEO of Amtrak, was also in front of the public and the media following the accident. He did a number of interviews, spoke at news conferences and at the memorial service held at the site crash. His comments received less attention, but they were consistent and effectively heartfelt. He also took responsibility for the crash and was straightforward with the public that Positive Train Control could have prevented the crash. His words and his presence cannot reverse the accident, but his decision to be the public face of his company through a tragedy, strengthened Amtrak’s position and its credibility. And, while the personal injury lawyers have already pounced, Boardman’s approach will help to restore Amtrak’s reputation over the long term.
Frequently we see leaders who are eager to speak to press when they launch a new product or have strong numbers to report, but who defer to a spokesperson or public relations professional to be the public face in a tragedy. This is almost always a mistake. When leaders hide, the public and the media are far less likely to listen when the news is good. We advise our clients to be public-facing in the good and the bad times; to be honest and sincere. Showing leadership through challenging times is what strengthens your credibility and your company’s brand, and subsequently makes you a trusted source when you have positive news to shout from the rooftops.