Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Watch Your Language: C&NC Railroad

What happened:

“Rail Cars Have Towns Singing Freight-Train Blues” blares the headline in The Wall Street Journal, Monday, February 23, 2009 (page 1, jumps to A12). It seems that, with the huge slowdown in the economy, there’s also a slowdown in the need for rail cars. Most railroads have few places to store extra cars except on sidings spread all across America, for example, the small town of New Castle, Indiana. The train tracks often run within 25 feet of homes. Now those tracks are filled with empty, seemingly abandoned rail cars and the neighbors aren’t happy.

What C&NC said:

The WSJ contacted Spencer Wendelin, an executive with C&NC Railroad, who, according to the news article, has “little sympathy for the angry residents.” “The railroad, I’ll guarantee you, was there a long time before they bought their houses,” he [Wendelin] says.

The WSJ notes that “some folks have begun to worry that some of the rail cars appear to be listing and might tip over.” To which, according to The WSJ, Mr. Wendelin dismissed the fears as “completely unfounded concerns, based on both history and physics.”

Pressed for some kind of answer about the cars, which were becoming targets for vandals and roaming children and adults, and upon being asked when the cars were to be moved, Mr. Wendelin was quoted as saying, “If you can tell me when the economy is going to turn around, then I can give you an answer to that question.”

It appears to be no more Mr. Nice Guy for the town of New Castle, Indiana.

What C&NC meant:

Up yours . . . New Castle, bird to follow. Can’t you see that we’ve got problems? We were here first. You knew what you were doing when you put your house next to the railroad track.

We’ll move these cars some place else when we can. In fact, now that you’ve griped publicly, you can bet that we’ll clear out Ponsford, Minnesota before we’ll clear out New Castle, Indiana.

What C&NC should have said:

First, let me apologize on behalf of C&NC Railroad for inconveniencing those along our rights of way, where these surplus rail cars are now being temporarily stored. Clearly, we would much rather have the cars in service, moving goods and products to markets across America.

We have established a toll free telephone number, 1-555-SO-SORRY (1-555-767-6779), for residents in the various towns where cars are currently stored to contact us regarding excessive graffiti and cars that may appear to be leaning or becoming unstable. We have several teams of inspectors who will go to those sites, assess the situation, and meet with home owners to explain what actions, if any, can be taken, or what may actually be transpiring.

This railroad has had these tracks in place for seven decades, well before any of the houses that currently lie along them were built. We recognize that we are interfering with what used to be the normal lives of our neighbors and we’ll do what we can, under the circumstances, to alleviate their concerns. The reality, though, is that, in fact, these cars must be stored somewhere and mostly in places like New Castle and other smaller towns. We know this is a difficult request to respond to, but we are asking every community along our lines to bear with us as we move through the economic dislocation we and all of America are now experiencing.

You can believe me when I tell you that our number one goal is to get those cars filled with merchandise, products, produce, livestock, or manufactured goods, and get them on the move to future customers. Perhaps, on this, we can all agree.

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4 Comments:

Blogger oscar said...

It is in his best interests to participate in this negative story in order to have his position correctly represented. I wish he could take a look at your blog.

It seems that the executive never took media training and the message he sent out is totally unprepared, maybe because he did not expect a WSJ journalist to visit such a small town.

I am waiting to see what he will do after reading that WSJ article. He doesn't seem to have a sense of crisis communication,but also has a cavalier attitude. Is he mad? I guess yes,and probably wants to establish a toll free number,1-555-im-angry.

Oscar Wang
USC

February 25, 2009 at 3:05 AM  
Blogger Jim Lukaszewski said...

Thank you, Oscar.

Perhaps the thrill of talking to The Wall Street Journal blinded the executive to the fact that he would also be speaking to and bullying his own neighbors. This attitude often reflects the views of others in top management and also the power these companies generally have.

This executive, the company and, perhaps, the industry, suffers from victim confusion. This is where someone in a position of power and authority somehow feels that their life is being made miserable because they are being put upon by someone they don’t respect or who has “no standing” to complain about them. In reality, of course, it’s the neighbors to these rail cars who are the victims and whose concerns, fears, and doubts need to be promptly and empathetically dealt with, or there will be more trouble. Executives often like to whine about the problems that critics are causing. The feeling, in this case, is that the railroads contribute so much to society that they are owed some slack. Maybe yesterday, but not today, and for sure not tomorrow.

Some years ago, in Pittsburgh, I was working with an organization that had a community problem. In one of the public meetings, someone happened to mention railroad noise. It was a minor point but, within days, at least two dozen railroad community relations people showed up in town and began going door-to-door talking to people. By the time the next public meeting had occurred, even the opponents recognized that, before they mention the railroad, they better have their act together and be prepared for an opponent who really does understand how politics and the public interest work in America.

My sense, though, is that the rail car storage issue will continue to fester. The railroads are going to need a much more apologetic, understanding public posture to avoid the trouble that irritated local folks can cause when they feel attacked rather than accommodated.

Victims have enormous power, so much so that they can change the destinies of companies and the careers of politicians and executives. I’ve written extensively about the power of victims and the need to understand victimization. Here are links to a lengthy article that was part of a speech published in Vital Speeches.

Chill-Out, Have a Heart: Managing the Victim Dimension of High Profile Litigation, Vital Speeches of the Day, March 15, 2006:

http://www.e911.com/speeches/Speech,%20Vital%20Speeches%20of%20the%20Day,%20Chill-Out,%20Have%20a%20Heart,%20Pages%201-3.pdf

http://www.e911.com/speeches/Speech,%20Vital%20Speeches%20of%20the%20Day,%20Chill-Out,%20Have%20a%20Heart,%20Pages%204-5.pdf

http://www.e911.com/speeches/Speech,%20Vital%20Speeches%20of%20the%20Day,%20Chill-Out,%20Have%20a%20Heart,%20Pages%206-7.pdf

February 25, 2009 at 10:51 AM  
Blogger oscar said...

Mr.Lukaszewski, thank you for providing me that very insightful article. As a matter of fact, the first class when I got into my graduate school was to read your articles and even now I am still enjoying.

My understanding is that most managers,expecially in the technology, manufacture and finance industries,are more de-emotionalized than their counterparts in consumer products and PR industries. This de-emotionalization gives them an advantage when facing complex financial and operational troubles,but,more importantly,deprives them of the ability to behave rationally when facing PR crises. At this point, I wholeheartedly agree with your opinion that the emotion factor can be crucial to a company and careers of executives.

If this factor had been carefully weighed by those non-sentimental executives, then Rick Wagoner of GM wouldn't have flown to Washington on his jet, John Thain of Merrill Lynch wouldn't have spent a million dollars decorating his office, and Vikram Pandit of Citigroup wouldn't have ordered his new helicopter. The organization in Pittsburgh you mentioned sets a very good example.

In this particular case of railroads, I am not sure if the management was reluctant to assume blame,or simply complaining to the journalist. I totally agree with your idea that the company needs a more apologetic posture to the public. But my question is, to what extent this posture should be?

By apologizing to the public, will the company take any risk of still being prosecuted? After all,that scenario is very likely to happen in a less ethical community or a less developed country. I think sometimes it's really hard to bring both PR people and lawyers into the same room.

Oscar
USC

February 27, 2009 at 6:17 AM  
Blogger Jim Lukaszewski said...

Apologies Reduce Litigation

In reality, I characterize apology as “the atomic energy of empathy.” As evidenced by the “I’m Sorry” movement in healthcare, where the impact of apology on litigation is being studied every day, the evidence is clear. When people apologize, those whose lives they affect don’t sue. It’s in the high 90th percentile. Apologies reduce litigation.

Thirty-three U.S. states now prohibit juries and judges from considering spontaneous apologies at auto accidents in the awarding of damages. Nineteen U.S. states have limitations on how juries can consider apologies by medical personnel in medical malpractice cases.

To the contrary, courts love apologies, judges love apologies, juries love apologies. Only lawyers don’t like them. Apologies get them fired or unhired more quickly. Best of all, apologies help victims and survivors move through the circumstances they are suffering.

By the way, I teach a 90-minute course for Continuing Legal Education (CLE) on victimization and the power of apologies. My goal is to help attorneys better understand why this is a very important development in the litigation process, and that lawyers must more easily recommend it to clients when it’s truly appropriate.

Here are a couple of Web sites on apology to check out:

www.sorryworks.net: Web site for the “I’m Sorry” movement, which the medical profession has undertaken for the last several years to begin to mitigate the explosive growth in litigation involving hospitals and medical procedures.

Use your search engine to find results for the phrase “extreme honesty.” Look for a study published in the December 1999 Annuals of Internal Medicine, which reflects a study done from 1990 to 2000 in the Veterans Administration Hospital in Lexington, Kentucky. During the course of this study, it was demonstrated how powerful prompt, compassionate, direct communication about adverse outcomes can be and, as a part of the study, the hospital learned the power of apology. This study is the basis for the “I’m Sorry” movement and the beginning of the recognition of the power of apology.

www.perfectapology.com: This site tracks apologies, talks about apologies, analyzes apologies, and is extremely helpful in constructing effective apologies.

March 3, 2009 at 2:03 PM  

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