A little more than three weeks since a Norfolk Southern Railway Corp. train derailed near East Palestine, Ohio, releasing toxic chemicals, the response to the incident is already turning into one of the most keenly dissected cases of crisis communications in US corporate history.
The consensus among PR experts is that Norfolk Southern’s initial response to the Feb. 3 incident was slow-footed, tentative and, overall, wholly inadequate to the magnitude of the situation.
The relentless coverage of a devastated community has seen the White House and, in particular, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, forced on the defensive. At the same time, Republicans and right-leaning media have seized on the alleged neglect of a working-class Ohio town by an aloof liberal elite, culminating in a visit last week by former President Donald Trump.
The train was carrying hazardous materials, including at least five tanker cars of vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic gas used to produce PVC plastic and vinyl products. Because of that, the derailment forced hundreds of people to evacuate and led to a controlled release of those chemicals into the air.
Ever since then, there has been acute local alarm about toxic fumes and water contamination from spilled materials. It has not been dispelled by statements from the EPA and other official bodies, or from Norfolk Southern itself, that the air and water are fine.
Against this backdrop, Norfolk Southern made two critical mistakes.
First, its early communications consisted mainly of long-winded and impersonal written statements. At a time when the EPA and Ohio Governor DeWine fielded questions from residents at an open town hall, Norfolk Southern cancelled its appearance, citing safety concerns. By the time CEO Alan Shaw was on the scene, the damage had been done.
Second, many of the company’s media statements have been unnecessarily defensive and tone deaf. Following the Feb. 23 release of the National Transportation Safety Agency report, for instance, Norfolk Southern took credit for assessing facts correctly in advance and churlishly criticized “misinformation.”
Today, nearly a month after the derailment, it feels like Norfolk Southern’s crisis machine has finally swung into full gear. But is it already too late?
The company has dedicated part of its website to daily updates and information for affected residents. And it is beginning to showcase some laudable initiatives.
Last week, for instance, the company pledged to donate $300,000 to the East Palestine School District and also said it will donate $850,000 to the local fire department and a $220,000 reimbursement to fund new equipment for first responders.
These are steps in the right direction. But more could be done, especially for television.
CEO Shaw has taken center stage but his performance has been rehearsed and wooden. In an extended interview with CNBC, he was unable to address questions of legal liability and financial compensation. That’s understandable, but lines like “we’re going to make this right,” just beg more questions. During a CNN-staged “town hall” Shaw was mute while a life-long resident who just wanted to retire and plant tomatoes this spring pleaded for Shaw’s help and declared “your company stinks.”
Apparently, Shaw and his PR team haven’t learned the first lesson of TV journalism: The story is visual. Pictures drive coverage. The controlled burn will be replayed to millions upon millions of viewers in the weeks and months ahead (or at least until another equally colorful and shocking event unfolds for network camera crews). If Norfolk Southern wants to control and eventually end the crisis, they need to create their own visuals.
Instead of seating Shaw for questions, he should be seen in East Palestine’s homes, shoulder-to-shoulder with EPA inspectors. He should walk property lines and kneel in unplanted gardens, sifting the dirt through his fingers. Convoys of Norfolk Southern trucks should be filmed bringing countless loads of fresh soil to town while company employees help school children plant a new community green space. Shaw doesn’t need to comment on the record or answer hostile questions, as long as he’s available for cameras, ideally while working at a desk in Norfolk Southern’s new East Palestine-based “Office of the Cleanup.”
Ultimately, Norfolk Southern will never fully repair its tattered reputation until it can take control of the narrative. The company’s PR needs to re-set the story and document the restoration of East Palestine from the ground up. Otherwise, the Norfolk Southern brand and East Palestine, Ohio will be remembered only for those aerial shots of burning chemicals and crumpled freight cars.
Pen Pendleton and Brian Cattell are co-founders of CLP Strategies, a public relations boutique.
Mar. 3, 2023, by Bill Huey
Sound advice, but it doesn't go far enough. CEO Shaw should eat some of the dirt he runs through his fingers and drink water from the river to show it's okay.