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Week of 24 February 2020: Transportation entities must watch their Public Relations

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Whether truck, rail, air or jitney, transportation companies often have a public relations problem.

True story. I was working on an expert witness case with a law firm here in Atlanta a few years ago. It was completely unrelated to the story I am about to provide. I was there one day for depositions and those of us on our case were warned that people involved with another case would be in the offices that day and they expected some potential problems.

What was that case of which they spoke? Several nursing students, in one or two cars (I don't remember exactly) had been killed in an accident with a semitruck several months before. This particular day was the day for the families to vent their agony on the trucking company. Law firms representing both sides were apparently present, as well as the trucking company owner from another state. The mothers came in and were in the hallway. Each one was wearing a specially design brooch with a picture of her daughter in it. Apparently they all had their opportunity to chew on the trucking company owner.

I don't know the trucking company; I don't know anything about their safety record. All I know is some promising young lives were lost and the trucking company was getting the brunt of the family's wrath, probably rightly so. Insurance companies no doubt paid big claims, but the lives were never to be returned.

Over forty years ago, I ran a little consulting firm in the Midwest for a few years. Several of our clients were railroads, for whom we investigated accidents. Often this was the same sort of scenario, although our role kept us from witnessing the grief-stricken confrontations.

The point, however, is this. The public relations issues with transportation often boil down to physics problems. Visibility and sound are two of the obvious problems. The big one, however, is the disparate weight and speed (Force = mass times acceleration) of truck and trains versus anything that may be in their way. You can do safety training all week, but if a set of conditions pops up for which you did not train or in which there is operator error, big things always "win" over littler things.

Hence public relations is paramount (as well as good liability insurance policies). You must have an active public relations program if you hope to survive a horrific accident. Look at the hapless Boeing 737 Max. Boeing no doubt has plenty of insurance and so do the airlines. But nearly 500 lives have been lost in two accidents apparently due to poor management. There is not enough insurance in the world, not deep enough pockets to overcome this problem anytime soon. Do you think I will ever fly on a Boeing 737 Max? Highly unlikely. Could better PR have helped my attitude towards this? Highly likely.

For safety this week, we already have our subject above. Large moving objects on your site, on the highway, in the air or in the water are dangerous. Training is paramount.

Be safe and we will talk next week.


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