New York City area commuters are still feeling aftershocks from the deadliest train accident in the history of the Metro-North Railroad. Earlier this week, six people — five men inside the train and the woman behind the wheel of an SUV stopped on the tracks — died in the accident in New York's suburban Westchester County.
The force of the fatal crash between the train going nearly 60 mph and the car was so severe that the electrified third rail broke off and pierced the vehicle's chassis and gas tank before penetrating the first train car and igniting a "fierce fire," investigators said Wednesday.
At least 15 others were injured.
The accident hit close to home for media consultant Jim Cameron, a 19-year member of the Connecticut-Metro North Rail Commuter Council and founder of a new advocacy group, The Commuter Action Group.
As both a communicator and a commuter advocate, Cameron seemed like the right person to ask about crisis communications — and get his assessment on how the MTA has responded to the week's tragic events.
"I'm very impressed by the responses of all the agencies involved," Cameron told CMSWire today. "Best as I can tell, this accident was not the railroad’s fault, unlike derailments that occurred twice in 2013. The railroad immediately communicated what had happened via email and Twitter. The National Transportation Safety Board has done a great job of sharing the facts with the media and tweeting directly from on-site.
In any crisis, the best thing to do is be open and honest, sharing info ASAP. I always tell my clients that 'news is a vacuum. If you don’t fill it with your story that vacuum will be filled by your competitors or rumors.'”
For more than 35 years Cameron has worked in communications, initially on radio, later at NBC News and finally in public relations. Today, Cameron Communications Inc. offers media consulting services to clients worldwide, including media/speaker training, preparation for analyst presentations and analyst briefings. He also leads a workshop on Ethics in PR.
Cameron's clients have appeared on 60 Minutes, 20/20, The Today Show, CNN, CNBC and have been quoted in The Wall Street Journal, trade journals and lifestyle magazines. He has dealt with environmental crises, food tampering scares, insurance reform, employee healthcare and workplace safety issues to name a few. Here is what he had to say today.
Sobel: You and I go back to your days at WLIR Radio on Long Island, N.Y. In the heyday of free-form FM radio WLIR was the NYC area alternative rock station and was one of the most popular, even more so than many of the NYC-based stations. From there you moved to NYC, Hartford, Conn. and Boston before landing at NBC Radio in New York to develop a distinctive news format for “younger listeners.” Eventualy you started your media consulting business. Can you fill in the gaps?
Cameron: When I went to Lehigh University (class of 1972) I thought I was going to turn my passion for trains into a Civil Engineering degree. That folly lasted one semester until I got involved with the campus radio station, WLVR. I ended up as a sociology major but spent 40 hours a week learning radio the hard way … by doing it: DJ’ing, news, production. My senior year I won a Major Armstrong Award for documentary excellence. Years later I won another Armstrong and ended up serving on their Board of Directors. Later, at NBC, I received a George Foster Peabody Award.
Sobel: On your website you say “Media training teaches you how to use a media interview to your advantage and helps you prepare a message that you want to get across in interviews, regardless of the questions you’re asked.”
Cameron: I’m not a Spin Doctor. Rather, I teach clients what reporters need when working a story and how you can match those needs against your messages. Rather than just answering reporters’ questions, I teach how to “bridge” to the story you want to tell. Questions aren’t obligations. They are opportunities.
Sobel: With regard to media training you say, “Anybody who is speaking with the media on behalf of your company or organization should be candidate for media training. Reporters are no longer satisfied with dealing with spokespersons or PR “flacks.” They want access to C-level executives, though you may find there are others in the organization who are better communicators.” What about a small, startup company, is the model the same?
Cameron: Absolutely. The smaller the company, the more the founders should be the spokesperson. They have the vision! But running a startup and communicating your messages are different skills. That why I’ve been so lucky to empower C-level clients at DoubleClick, Foursquare and xAd to get their story in print and on-air.
Sobel: In addition to knowing you for well over 35 years you have been a strong advocate for rail commuters in Connecticut and Westchester. Essentially The Commuter Action Group is an advocate for commuters on railroad lines throughout Connecticut and parts of New York. In essence you work the DOTs and Metro North Railroad to ensure their voices are heard and committed to improving the commuting experience for everyone.
Cameron: Exactly. I spent 19 years on the CT Rail Commuter Council, a creation of the CT legislature. But in 2013 I left when the group became politicized and started The Commuter Action Group, realizing that I could use the web, Twitter (@CTRailCommuters) and Facebook to give commuters’ voice more power. Our website (www.CommuterActionGroup.org) allows train riders to immediately complain to the railroad and their elected officials when things go wrong. The response has been amazing. Total cost for the launch, $12.
Sobel: I read that there are three standard questions that reporters tend to ask when it comes to press conferences and media events. Can you share the questions and answers?
Cameron: First, Questions You Don’t Know the Answer To — If you don’t know the answer to a question, say so… but offer to get the answer and circle back to the reporter. Then tell the reporter what you DO know, and get back to your key messages.
Second, Questions That Call for Speculation — In a crisis that can be dangerous and come back to bite you. Don’t speculate. Just share the known facts.
Third, Questions That Ask For Your Personal Opinion — Unless you’re the CEO, your personal opinion doesn’t matter. If you’re a “spokesperson” you should keep your personal opinions to yourself and speak only for the company.
Title image and headshot of Jim Cameron by Jason Rearick/Hearst Connecticut Media/Stamford Advocate (used with permission).