September 18th 2013. On this day, many lives in the Ottawa community changed both instantly and drastically. A double decker OC Transpo bus commuting from Barrhaven failed to engage its breaks, causing a collision with a VIA rail train on route to Toronto. Put simply, the bus went straight through the guardrails, smashing into the train. The consequences were devastating: the front of the bus was completely torn off, resulting in 6 deaths and 35 injuries.
This situation can be analyzed through a public relations lens. It provides a perfect case study of crisis management and crisis communication. By analyzing the responses from key figures in Ottawa such as Mayor Jim Watson, OC Transpo, and VIA rail spokespeople, we can see how crisis is handled through different platforms in the wake of devastation.
I believe that the crisis was handled well on the management spectrum side of the communication. They managed well because of their quick response time and steady, consistent messages portrayed. Contingency plans are very important when it comes to crisis analysis. All public relations practitioners know the need to be prepared for any crisis, whatever it may be. That being said, the OC Transpo and VIA Rail did well during this crisis. Their quick responses told the public that they were aware of the situation. Emergency crews were present on site extremely quickly. The speedy intervention and reaction increased public trust, as people of authority were handling the scene with the utmost care and precision.
However the same could not be said about the public’s response to the crash. Social media blasts on Facebook and Twitter feeds were full of misleading and unverified information from non-reporters. Conformity to the dominant views and positions created bandwagons of people quick to offer commentary, speculation, and disseminate false facts. This put pressure on reporters to produce content before traditional media outlets had fully taken over; whether through ethical or unethical means (i.e. neglecting to verify facts on victim toll, and speculating the role of the bus driver) and ultimately created a vicious domino effect of inaccurate information cycling through social circles. Journalists are storytellers and they want to be the first on the scene to share the news piece. If reporters produce false information they could lose their jobs, however when the public spreads the same fallacious facts, there is no true accountability held to anyone. What arises out of the situation is an internal struggle for the reporter to be the first to report the story, yet be able to verify the facts before it hits social media and indirectly into the wrong hands. The reality of the Internet is once information is out in cyber space, it is hard to take it back. When the public becomes misinformed on crises through this manner, it becomes a PR nightmare. Public relations practitioners are then faced with the job of taking inaccurate information and reeducating the public on the truths of the matter. Not only are they faced with this task – but they also must address these rumors under a time crunch in order to maintain the reputation and image of the companies.
Coverage on the incident was so instantaneous due to the use of Twitter that questions were raised regarding the ethics of the reporters present. As reporters try to find a balance between truthful accounts of a news piece and verifying facts, they sometimes fall short of both and rely on sensationalizing the story to keep the audience’s attention. Interviewing victims shortly after an incident is not uncommon unethical practices for reporters to misleadingly captivate attention, and the OC Transpo crash was no exception.
The urgency of the reporters and eyewitness coverage are juxtaposed against these carefully crafted messages of the management figures or opinion leaders. The first tweets from spokespeople of the companies were sent an hour after the crash occurred. They contained information regarding the crash to clarify the events, and also expressed their deep condolences to all victims and their families. For example, Mayor Jim Watson’s first tweet regarding the incident was, “My thoughts are with the victims of this accident. Please pray for those affected and for our 1st responders dealing with this tragedy”. Subsequently, Watson held a press conference at noon to respond to all the ambiguity and clarify information from the circulating tweets and social media caused by these reporters. After this, he tweeted a link to a PSA regarding and outlining the collision. A strategy of full disclosure of all known information is important during a crisis of such proportions. Without speculation about the unknown, giving the public factual information is a strong way to manage the public’s perceptions of the crisis. Watson main messages were clear, steady and full of information. His team had contingency plans ready months in advance, should a mechanical crash happen in Ottawa. This is a major part of PR: being prepared for crisis should it arise. It was quite noticeable that his team of communication specialists were indeed prepared for the worst, should it occur. Politicians, OC Transpo, and VIA Rail all had quite similar messages to the public during the event. Each expressed sympathy, prayers to the victims, and a promise to investigate the crisis further.
Both companies used the technique of an apology to address this crisis. However, VIA Rail made it quite clear in their apology that their operations had been doing everything right prior to the crash. The guardrails were employed, and the train was going at a slow speed in the residential area. VIA’s statement made this information clear to the publics in order to maintain their reputation of a reliable company. VIA’s statement technique is considered an excuse. The intent of this technique was to place the blame on the OC Transpo, and to blame the crisis on their actions. This left the OC Transpo to deal with the circulating questions: was the crash caused by mechanical failure? Or was it a human error? OC Transpo addressed this through informing the public that thorough investigations were to be conducted to look further into this matter.
The public needs to be included and informed during crisis that affects them. This is why public relations, and the development of a key, clear and inclusive message is crucial during a crisis situation. The next steps were to be clean up, repair, issue sincere apologies and ensure that this tragic mechanical collision does not happen again.
Overall, the businesses did a good job handling the situation. Their messages to the public were conveyed well through Twitter, news coverage, press conferences and their respected websites. However, the journalistic integrity of the reporters should be questioned, as perhaps they comprised their ethics for a sensational news-piece. Misleading Twitter and Facebook posts can cause confusion and ambiguity during crisis. A problem that faces modern day PR is the control of a crisis during a digital age, where messages can be so easily misconstrued. This will be a problem addressed in the next upcoming years, how can public relations practitioners use their tools to maintain an organizations’ reputation in a digital age where rumors can spread so rapidly.
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