SoCal Train Wreck: PR Takes Fall for Telling the Truth

Last Updated Sep 15, 2008 8:04 PM EDT

On Friday, an LA commuter train slammed into a freight train, killing 25 people. On Saturday, the PR person for the Metrolink train system said publicly it appeared that the passenger train's engineer was at fault for the crash. On Sunday, her bosses issued a statement saying her pronouncement was "premature." On Monday, she resigned.

This is a good ethics-in-real life case study in public communications. Was it right for the PR person to state the obvious truth before she was cleared to do so by her bosses? What if she believed she was told it was OK to announce the preliminary cause of the crash, only to find out the next day that she wasn't fully supported in doing so?

On one hand, you have to applaud the spokesperson, Denise Tyrell, for coming out with the honest truth in a timely fashion. The public, and the families, have a right to know as soon as possible, even if it wouldn't have changed the outcome of the tragedy. On the other hand, Tyrell worked for Metrolink, and owed a duty to her bosses to follow their lead. [It's unclear whether Tyrell was told to make the announcement she made or did it on her own.]

In the real world, PR has a big ongoing problem with situations like this. Most PR people are by nature communicators and storytellers, so our instincts are to find out information and tell people. But this is not always what our higher-ups want us to do -- even when it is apparent that being forthright is the right thing to do, both for the institution and the wider audience. It puts us in a sticky, no-win professional situation: lie/obscure because it's your job, or be more open and candid and risk losing your job.

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(Image by ThreeWeinerGuy, CC 2.0)
  • Jon Greer

    Jon Greer has been analyzing media and PR for more than 25 years. He's been a journalist and a PR executive, and has been a featured speaker for many years at the Bulldog Reporter Media Relations Summit, and served as Bulldog's Editorial Director for their PR University series of weekly how-to audio conferences.

    Jon provides PR services including media relations and freelance writing to clients including start-ups, law firms, corporations, investment banks and venture capital firms. In addition, Jon provides spokesperson training. Learn more about Jon's training programs at The Media Bridge.