You Had One Job: Amtrak’s Lesson on How Not to Handle Crisis Communications

Crisis communications can be like Goldilocks and the three bears: too soft, too hard or just right. But when lives are lost, it’s no fairy tale, as Amtrak learned in the week after a train crash that killed eight people.

As PRWeek points out in a recent article, the day after the crash was an incredibly insensitive time for Amtrak to release an ad titled “Your success is a train ride away” and distribute customer satisfaction survey. Writer Steve Barrett cites an unfortunately timed interview with Amtrak’s PR director and digital and social media coordinator Julia Quinn the day before the crash, where she promoted the bolstering of the company’s customer service department through additional resources and staff.

In a separate article on PRWeek, Andrew Brenner, senior manager for Rockefeller Foundation organization 100 Resilient Cities, complained about what he felt were Amtrak’s lack of emergency preparedness, its unhelpful police officers, and its lack of contact on its emergency line to reclaim his luggage. Brenner told PRWeek that he would never set foot on an Amtrak train again.

On the Amtrak blog, Joe Boardman, president and CEO, attempted to right matters by sympathizing with the victims and praising local emergency response, but perhaps too late to counter the impact of the original communications blunders.

“Amtrak is ever grateful to the City of Philadelphia – its first responders who bravely worked in difficult conditions, including the dark of night, to rescue and provide aid to hundreds; its hospital personnel who went into full alert as patients arrived at emergency rooms; its officials who quickly implemented a response plan; and its citizens who opened their doors to offer assistance.”

As Amtrak learned once Twitter and other social media got involved in the story, proper crisis communications requires timely and appropriate messaging.

A tragic and costly lesson for all involved.


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