Thursday, September 25, 2008

LA Times rejects opinion article

The Los Angeles Times has rejected an opinion article penned by PRSA National Chair and CEO Jeff Julin about former Metrolink employee Denise Tyrrell and how her actions align with PRSA's code of professional conduct. If it's rejected by other local papers, I hope it can be published on PRSA's Web site, and this blog.

LA Business Journal gives "half" support to Denise

LA Business Journal Editor Charles Crumpley weighs in this week (Sept 9-14 issue) on Metrolink's Denise Tyrrell's handling of the "who was at fault" question, under the headline: "Responsibility, Not Blame"

"I want to praise Denise Tyrrell. She was the Metrolink spokeswoman who resigned under pressure last Monday after quickly admitting that it was the Metrolink train engineer who ran a red light and caused the tragedy of Sept. 12.
I want to stand squarely in her corner for setting aside the usual evasive and lawyerly gibberish and making an honest statement.
I want to, but I can’t. That’s because, unfortunately, the situation is more nuanced.
Within 24 hours of the tragic train collision, Tyrrell met with reporters and said that barring the results of an official investigation, “We believe that it was our engineer who failed to stop at a signal.” She went on to say, “When two trains are in the same place at the same time, someone’s made an awful mistake.”
The problem with her statement is not that she put the blame on Metrolink instead of the freight train it collided with. Even within hours of the tragedy, it was clear that the Metrolink train ran the red light. Her honesty on that point was refreshing.
The problem was that she seemed to put the blame on the engineer. While he was an obvious suspect, it was simply too early to know whether he was guilty of the “awful mistake.” At that very early point in the investigation – recovery of the dead was still going on when she made the statement – there were too many questions. Was there a problem with the signal? Had there been a mechanical failure? Had the engineer suffered a heart attack? Had the train been hijacked by terrorists?
In any case, she quickly had to resign her position. Critics pointed out that she didn’t really know who or what was at fault, so she shouldn’t have all but blamed the engineer, who died in the crash. Those critics have a valid point.
As L.A. County Supervisor Don Knabe and some others have pointed out, it would have been better had she said something like: “It is clear that it was the Metrolink train that ran the red light. Exactly how or why that happened is not clear. Of course, an investigation is under way.”
Tyrrell, in my opinion, had the right impulse. She had the wrong execution.
And even though I can’t stand squarely in her corner, I will stand on her half of the ring. Any business or organization that finds itself a player in a tragedy could take a lesson from the forthrightness that she showed. Too many companies worry first about the punitive damages they face and let truth become a victim. I believe that hurts them. And it should.
I’m just speaking for myself, but if I were a juror and sat on a case in which a company was involved in a tragedy, I’d be inclined to lighten up if the business had quickly and honestly admitted its fault and guilt.
As for the company that had quickly sent out a PR robot who danced and dissembled and then later parsed the words of the investigation in full lawyerly evasiveness, I’d punish them

Friday, September 19, 2008

More support for Denise

LA Times columnist Patt Morrison, who also has a lively radio show in Los Angeles, weighed in on Denise Tyrrell.

I spoke with Denise on Thursday and expressed PRSA's support for her. She was thankful and said she is still trying to take it all in. "It's still a bit overwhelming," she said. But, I could tell Denise was unwavering in her original counsel to MTA executives to disclose early the information Metrolink had before them.

She also is not second-guessing her decision to leave Metrolink.

Also saw two letters to the editor in the Times, including one from a PR professional who was critical of Denise for a premature disclosure of information. I have spoken with dozens of PR colleagues and at least more than 80% of them are in support of Denise's actions. Most of the senior PR pros I've spoken with are clear to point out that they wouldn't hesitate to disclose clear facts, as long as there was clear discussion of the ramifications. This includes impacts to "customers," potential legal action, etc., since our jobs must ultimately protect our organizations and companies.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Camera angles?

An interesting observation from a camera pro about how camera angles can play an important factor in TV interviews. Something PR pros should be aware of as they put their clients before the camera.

PRWeek visits LA

Check out Kimberly Maul's "The Cycle" blog about PRWeek's recent roundtable with entertainment PR leaders in Los Angeles.

Business Week weighs in

Liz Wolgemuth, who writes "The Inside Job" blog for Newsweek, picked up on Denise's resignation. See it here.

Denise for President?

LA Times columnist Sandy Banks' piece on Denise Tyrrell's show of emotion during the early press conferences following the tragic Metrolink crash sparked nearly 100 reader comments, including a few who said Denise should run for President for being so honest.

When did we hear in this country such support for a PR professional?

By my count, about 80 percent of the comments to Banks' piece praised Denise for being honest and forthright. Interestingly, at least one reader comment from someone who said they were a practicing PR professional was highly critical, claiming Denise was issuing statements without authority and let her emotions overcome her professional responsibility. Apparently this commenter did not see or hear Denise's boss verify that he authorized the release of the information.

Another reader of Banks' piece said he usually has a bad opinion of PR people, but found Denise's candor refreshing.

To my colleagues, this is probably a perfect time to refresh trust in our profession. PRSA continues to take more and more proactive steps to uphold ethical values and standards of conduct within the public relations industry.

You can demonstrate your commitment to ethical conduct and practice your professionalism by either taking simple steps, or becoming more vocal. A simple step starts with the recent call by PRSA's "Clean and Fair Campaign 2008" group to encourage the two presidential candidates to conduct a truthful, ethical campaign. The Facebook group has more than 2,000 members - and really should have 100,000 members -- to pledge their support for this effort. Start your Facebook page now and take the pledge. That's pretty simple.

The more bold steps I leave up to you.

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.

PRSA Western District Chair comments on Metrolink spokesperson's resignation

Denis Wolcott, current chair of PRSA's Western District and past president of the PRSA's Greater Los Angeles Area chapter, went on camera Monday to discuss the sudden resignation of Metrolink spokesperson Denise Tyrrell following the train authority's quick disclosure that its engineer was at fault in Friday's (Sept. 12) head-on train crash that killed 26 and injured 135 commuters.

Public Relations professionals are expected to adhere to the highest standards of accuracy and truth in advancing the interests of those we represent and in communicating with the public. Ms. Tyrrell's boss, Metrolink CEO David Solow, told reporters Monday that he authorized her to disclose that the engineer was at fault and had ignored a red signal to stop. Denise gave the news last Saturday, in a stunningly quick less than 24 hours after the crash. Metrolink felt it had to answer the nagging question: "How could this happen?"

However, the National Transportation Safety Board, which likes to take control of how information is disseminated in deadly transportation crash investigations, quickly responded to Metrolink's disclosure, saying it was premature to assign blame. On Sunday, the Metrolink board of directors, a politically appointed body, met in private and later issued a statement essentially agreeing with the NTSB that it was premature to assign blame.Although not all of my interview with Los Angeles TV station KTLA Channel 5 was aired, I did stress the importance of an organization’s board, executive office and public relations staff working in concert when it comes to public communications and that public relations professionals clearly need to be part of the decision-making process at the highest level. I also cited the importance of an organization making a timely and full disclosure of authenticated information.

Denise Tyrrell also gave an exclusive on-camera interview to KCAL-TV, a local CBS affiliate, here.

Here's the background:FROM THE LA TIMES..." Metrolink spokeswoman Denise Tyrrell called the agency's chief executive to make an unusual request. "I asked him to allow me to make a statement to rebuild public trust," she recalled, "and I told him we had to be honest and upfront about what happened."

David Solow, she said, "agreed" with her plans to publicly acknowledge Saturday that a preliminary investigation showed the Metrolink engineer ran a red light before the commuter train plowed into a Union Pacific freight train. Her teary comments and surprising candor elicited a flood of encouragement from Metrolink staff members and commuters from as far as London and Vietnam.

By Monday, Tyrrell had resigned her $86,000-a-year post amid intense criticism from Metrolink officials and federal investigators who called her public comments premature and inappropriate.

But Tyrrell, 55, has no regrets.

"When you have loss of life, spinning is unacceptable," she said.

Watch the video which includes a PRSA comment for Denis Wolcott, chair of PRSA's Western District and past president of the PRSA's LA Chapter.