Norfolk Southern Navigates a Four-Vectored Crisis

As so often happens in the wake of a high-profile corporate crisis, a great many commentators have faulted the rail carrier Norfolk Southern Corporation for its failure to “control the narrative” around its derailment in East Palestine, Ohio.  

The premise of these critiques is that by failing to communicate more assertively –– including clearer and louder expressions of concern for the residents of the impacted community, regret for the incident, commitments to improve safety in the future and similar sentiments –– the company allowed other actors to define the situation in ways that are injurious to its interests.

There is certainly a measure of truth in all that. To anyone watching, the company’s communications efforts seemed lacking. In the two full days following the derailment, the carrier issued only a brief, two-paragraph statement on its website. Company spokespeople held two short press briefings which offered little more than broad assurances that the situation would continue to be investigated. When federal and local officials organized a town hall, company representatives declined to attend altogether, citing security concerns.

It all begs the question, what were they thinking? 

Having not spoken to anyone directly involved with the company’s response efforts, we obviously can’t know for sure what their thought processes were. But chalking it up to indifference or incompetence as some have done feels far too simplistic. Those arguing that the company needed to “do more, say more” have a point –– but only insofar as it relates to managing the company’s relationship with the general public and media. 

That’s an important consideration for sure, but hardly the only one. In reality, the rail carrier’s leadership team has almost certainly been caught between the often diametrically opposed pressures coming at them from four distinct vectors. 

  • Society –– in particular, the East Palestine community and the millions of Americans who sympathize with them –– are demanding more information, greater empathy and enhanced transparency.
  • Concurrently, Norfolk Southern likely fears that the State, including the federal regulators who oversee our rail system, don’t want the company saying anything that would front-run their official investigations. From a legal perspective, the company must be acutely aware that everything it says now could add to its already substantial litigation risk.
  • Executives also have to take into consideration the concerns of employees within their own Organization who may very well feel aggrieved by the way the company is being treated, and who would disapprove of it apologizing for things they may not feel are truly their fault.
  • And, of course, as a publicly traded company driven by the Capital Markets, Norfolk Southern had an obligation to not do or say things that could harm its own shareholders.

Within that complex swirl of competing and conflicting demands, the company has had to chart the best course possible. And while these dynamics have always been part of crisis management, their complexity has increased in recent years, as evidenced by the ongoing discussion of misinformation on social media related to the environmental impacts of the incident, the significant degree of polarization and politicization around the government’s response, and the potentially more aggressive posture of regulators. Those are relatively new phenomena that make developing a robust response strategy even more complicated. 

To many, it may seem like the company’s leaders were paralyzed by the crisis at hand. In reality, the decision to forgo a more proactive communications response may have been more active than it appears –– driven by a belief that, in the end, investigations would line up with the company’s version of events. In that case, not only would litigation risks be limited, but the Organization may emerge more unified than before.

What has happened in East Palestine is, unequivocally, a tragedy. None of this is meant to vindicate the company’s actions or its communications. One thing that is abundantly clear, however, is the growing need for companies to adopt strategies that are informed by the dynamic interplay –– and competing interests –– of Four Vectors should they hope to prosper against the test of time.