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30th March 2016

Farmer burns down bridge; then teaches us all a crisis communications lesson

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On Good Friday Brian Foster, a Canadian farmer, was taking advantage of the good weather to burn some dry grass in preparation for spring. The patches of snow created excellent fire guards making it safe to burn – or so he thought.

Unfortunately, one of his little grass fires ignited the creosote on the timbers of an old railway bridge and in a matter of minutes the whole thing went up in flames despite Foster’s every effort to extinguish the blaze with buckets of snow.

Now Foster could have run away and maybe no one would’ve found out that it was his fault.

Or he could have admitted responsibility, but made every excuse explaining why it really wasn’t his fault.

Or he could have simply said sorry and then hid from the spotlight.

Any of these strategies might have been tempting, but each of them likely would have attracted public anger and potential criminal charges.

However, Foster was much more courageous (or perhaps strategic) and actively sought out opportunities to apologise and explain what happened – not justify it or make excuses, just explain it in a very matter of fact way.

Not surprisingly to anyone who knows the first thing about the media and public perception, Foster’s approach not only eliminated any anger directed towards him, it’s actually made him something of a Canadian hero.

In truth, Foster’s actions seem a little like common sense. Even small children learn to apologise and they learn that understandable mistakes are forgiven. I’m betting that most people reading this know how to make amends for mistakes in their personal and even professional lives.

So why do companies find it so much harder to respond well in a crisis? Companies seem to have great difficulty following that basic tenet of crisis communications – admit your mistakes and apologise.

If a company had burned down the bridge (by which I mean people working for a company) it probably would have taken a small army of highly paid crisis communications professionals to issue even a simple press release stating that the “incident is under investigation.”

I’m not blind to the legal or myriad other factors that need to be considered as part of a crisis communications strategy for a company – indeed I count myself as a member of the small army of communications professionals that writes press releases stating that an investigation will be conducted.

But putting all that aside, sometimes in corporate comms we should all learn a lesson from a Canadian farmer.

 

Dustin Eno
COO & Crisis Response Manager

T: +44 (0)20 3326 8467
E: dustin.eno@navigateresponse.com

Twitter: @dustineno

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