Denise Tyrrell's hands were shaking as she tried to hold back her tears. A few hours earlier, the 55-year-old public relations executive watched as first responders swarmed the mangled pile of steel and bodies following the devastating Metrolink train wreck in Chatsworth, outside Los Angeles. For ten hectic hours, she wandered around the devastation, picking up scuttlebutt that always swirls like a dervish wherever chaos reins. Nobody knew anything except two trains collided killing how many people -- nobody knew. But there was buzz. The Metrolink engineer might have been at fault.
A few hours passed. Spokesperson Tyrell now stood before the media and nation who were eager to know what Metrolink knew -- which was not very much at this time. The National Traffic and Safety Board had only just begun their investigation and Ms. Tyrrell had not spoken to them. She was visibly affected as she reported to a hushed audience that Metrolink was probably to blame for the tragedy. The engineer ran a red light. The audience was stunned. Totally unexpected. What refreshing candor. Wow. Hours later, Ms. Tyrrell is out of a job.
What? How come? For a nation bombarded with government failures left and right, watching a spokesperson for a public agency actually take responsibility for failure is "....an unusual and refreshing change," the executive director of California Common Cause told the L.A. Times. Well, possibly. But, as we're hearing a lot lately, is this change we should believe in?
No, not really, say a host of professional crisis communication veterans. "It was premature to assign responsibility before the NTSB had done it's work. She hadn't even spoken to them. She reacted too quickly," says Jerry Swerling, Director and Professor of PR Studies, University of Southern California.
Agreed, says a former spokesman for a recently belly-up mortgage company. In the immediate aftermath of a disaster, the spokesperson's job is to report on what is currently known and what is NOT known, and that all possibilities are being carefully explored. You share whatever action is being taken by authorities, and you convey the compassion that everyone naturally feels during a terrible situation. You stick to the known facts. You do not speculate and you certainly don't conclude your own investigation, he says. The first rule in any crisis situation is: do no harm.
But what if it turns out she was right about the engineer? Does that justify what she said? No, say Ms. Tyrrell's crisis brethren. She did not have any confirmed facts from professional investigators. When you are surrounded by chaos and rumors, you have to be rigorous about the second rule in crises: whatever you think you know at the moment, will probably change. Stick to what you know.
Most PR practitioners and media coaches interviewed for this story had no problem with Ms. Tyrrell's sympathetic affect during her news conference. The consensus was: How can you not show compassion when something horrible like this happens? Most felt she followed protocol by asking for, and receiving permission from her Metrolink boss before her statement. If anyone should be reprimanded, it's him.
It's the spin angle here that's causing anxiety. The now-unemployed Ms. Tyrell has explained she was trying to be honest and upfront to rebuild public trust. "When you have loss of life, spinning is unacceptable," she told the L.A. Times.
"It is not about spin," says a concerned Swerling. "She should have stuck to established crisis protocols."
Maybe it is about spin. Media coaches define spin as an technique to re-frame an issue to benefit the speaker, or deflect a criticism -- sometimes with a limited acknowledgment of the facts. If the truth here is that she honestly did not know what caused the tragedy. Saying she DOES know in an effort to build trust and gain benefit -- isn't she the one spinning?