Tuesday, September 16, 2008

PR pros debate Denise Tyrrell's actions

Denise Tyrrell has understandably gone quiet since she was forced to defend her resignation in the news media. Denise is a consummate pro who knows she is not the story - but rather that journalists should focus on the investigation into the deadly Metrolink train crash that killed at least 25 and injured 135 commuters on Sept. 12. She also knows the story is with the victims, and the tens of thousands of commuters who trust Metrolink to take them safely to their jobs.

(For the record, I was a regular Metrolink commuter and was once on a Metrolink train that hit a car stuck on the tracks and another time on a Metrolink train that hit a man who was committing suicide. When I started my own company a few months ago, I no longer needed to take the train. I know Denise only by professional association and have not spoken with her about any of this.)

But, her actions - both how she handled the press conferences up to her resignation - have created a debate within the public relations community.

Several colleagues who saw my brief appearance on KTLA Channel 5 on Monday night or are reading the many stories about Denise's resignation have questions, as well as early assessments.

For those who have worked with the National Transportation Safety Board, it becomes clear very early that the NTSB wants to control how information is released after a deadly transportation incident. Too often, the NTSB has found, an early assumption or "piece of evidence" has been wrong or doesn't tell the complete story. I know how this control of information works, as a former roommate was an NTSB spokesperson. And, of course, there are legal issues.

So, the first question is:
1. Did Metrolink jump the gun and release the "cause" information too early? Less than 24 hours after the crash, Denise, at a press conference, said the crash was caused because it "appeared the engineer ignored a red light signal." Denise said Metrolink wanted to "be honest in our appraisal."

This was not the first deadly crash for Metrolink. And, since this was a head-on crash between a freight train and a passenger commuter train, the nagging question was: "How could this happen?" Metrolink's computer records and other information about the status of the warning lights and rail switches apparently gave officials an unequivocal set of facts. Metrolink also said others on the scene were discussing the same information. So, what they were faced with was a very critical piece of information soon landing on the ears of the news media. In many cases, PR pros realize the better course of action at this point is to play offense in order to prevent rumor (READ: blogs, Internet, Twitter) and set the record straight. In the old days, maybe Metrolink had another 48 to 72 hours to release this information. Not today. Just look what happened with reports that the engineer was texting two teen-agers just prior to the crash. The source of this information is apparently a YouTube video posted by the teens. At least one news outlet claims it has seen the actual texts from the engineer to the teens, but this report has yet to be verified. As of Tuesday (Sept. 16), the NTSB did not have the phone records. Yet, because of a lack of official confirmation one way or the other, the public is left to draw conclusions.

Metrolink's stunning announcement was met by the news media with shock - they are not used to such early disclosures in a major deadly crash. They also had genuine respect for Metrolink to be so bold and so honest so early. PR pros know that "being transparent" with the news media can earn better coverage, certainly better when compared to how the news media writes or broadcasts stories when they believe an organization is trying to deceive or "spin" them.

Metrolink's board the next day began back-tracking, essentially calling out Denise for releasing information too soon. That set into motion Denise's resignation. She said she felt her credibility was at stake, especially since her boss, CEO David Solow authorized her to give the details and that the Metrolink Board Chair, Ron Roberts, a Temecula city councilman, called her out in Monday's (Sept. 15) The Wall Street Journal.

"What was said by one of our public-relations employees needs to be followed up by the board and myself," Roberts was quoted in the Journal. The Metrolink board was either miffed they were not told in advance of the release of "cause" information, or they felt pressure from the NTSB to have staff clam up.

With this kind of statement in a major national newspaper, any public relations professional (really, no hyphen needed), would be put in the same position as Denise. So, she resigned and informed LA Times blogger Steve Hymon, who covers transportation issues. His Monday morning posting set off a national news story.

By Tuesday morning, the NTSB was starting to agree with Metrolink's assertion - but careful to say "the train" ran the red light signal. Certainly, Metrolink never attempted to answer the question: "Why did the engineer" run the red signal? The NTSB is hoping to find out.

Some public relations professionals I've spoken with characterized Metrolink's early release of information as "throwing the engineer under the train" and it was "easy to blame the dead guy." Others, some who have worked in transportation agencies, said they were shocked by Metrolink's early release of such critical information. They also question the "rush" to release information.

Again, time will tell, but it seems that Metrolink felt entirely confident of what they had in front of them and felt compelled to release it early -- to start, as they said, re-gaining public trust in their agency by being forthright and honest.

So the next question is:
2. Why did Roberts single out Denise and not include the CEO for authorizing the release of the information? We'll have to wait and see the ultimate answer. It's only speculation at this point.

Another question posed to me by both journalists and PR colleagues:
3. Did Denise's emotions play a role in all this? They didn't come out and say it, but this is what they meant to ask: "Did Denise accidentally release sensitive information because she was emotionally distraught?" The question has raised some emotions of its own, especially with female colleagues who are upset about what they see as unfair treatment of Denise because she is a woman.

My response to KTLA was this: "Hey, even veteran firefighters at the scene were overcome with emotion. It's a situation that carries a lot of trauma with it. Anyone is allowed to be human in those circumstances." We've seen male U.S. presidents crack with emotion, so why not the spokesperson of a regional transit agency? Denise gave information she was authorized to give and after that, I must point out, only then did she allude to it being an emotional time for her.

No matter the question or answer, this one will be a classic case study for the PR books.

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