Feb 23, 2023 - Economy

Norfolk Southern blames misinformation for its derailed response

Data: Memo, Twitter, Axios research; Chart: Erin Davis/Axios Visuals

Rail operator Norfolk Southern is getting slammed for its response following the derailment of one of its trains carrying hazardous materials near East Palestine, Ohio, this month.

Why it matters: Derailments typically require a hyper-local response, but Norfolk Southern was caught flat-footed when this incident garnered large-scale attention.

Catch up quick: The train — which was carrying hazardous materials, including at least five tanker cars of vinyl chloride, a carcinogenic gas used to produce PVC plastic and vinyl products — derailed on Feb. 3, Axios' Jacob Knutson reports.

  • The derailment forced hundreds of people to evacuate, led to a controlled release of potentially hazardous chemicals into the air, and caused alarm about toxic fumes and water contamination from spilled materials.

State of play: While the derailment and subsequent chemical fire did make national headlines, the news cycle was starting to cool by Sunday, Feb. 12, according to Memo readership data shared with Axios.

  • A Norfolk Southern spokesperson claimed the story was pushed back into the news by the tweets of political activists that were then amplified by foreign-owned bots.

Yes, but: As the spotlight on Norfolk Southern intensified, the company failed to adequately address the tough questions required to regain control of the narrative and reestablish trust.

  • Norfolk representatives pulled out of a local town hall due to concerns over "growing physical threats," Axios' Sam Allard reports.
  • And the company continues to avoid health-related questions, maintaining the Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Public Health and others are responsible for such communications.
  • “If folks are experiencing symptoms with which they’re not accustomed, I would strongly encourage them to go see a trusted medical professional,” CEO Alan Shaw told CNBC.

Between the lines: According to Norfolk Southern, their initial communication challenge was determining who owned what message.

  • Traditionally, incident communications are run by local first responders and the rail operator serves in more of an advisory role, a company rep told Axios.
  • Yes, but: With more than 1,000 train derailments each year, it's something all rail companies have navigated before.

Flash forward: Norfolk Southern is now going on a media blitz to push back against "misinformation" it believes is being peddled by political agitators.

  • In recent interviews with CNBC, PBS, The Wall Street Journal and in a town hall hosted by CNN, Shaw's message was consistent: misinformation is rampant, the air and the water are clean and Norfolk Southern is sorry and committed to supporting the community for the long term.

What they're saying: Experts we spoke with said the spread of misinformation is no excuse.

  • "Active, round-the-clock, cooperation with community leaders and regulators is absolutely essential to avoid an information vacuum that breeds fear and misinformation," Molly Levinson, founder and CEO of The Levinson Group, told Axios.
  • "The communication with the public has been off base from the start and has really opened the door for a lot of misinformation, confusion and even conspiracy theories," emergency management professor Samantha Montano told ABC News.
  • “Norfolk Southern [officials] initially used first responders as the sole responders to deal with the cleanup, and they lost trust in the community by not being accessible, responsive and honest," says Penta Group senior partner Mike Berland. "Only recently does it appear that they realized their responsibility to the communities and are now taking accountability. Restoring the trust will take much longer.”

The bottom line: You can't blame everything on the bots.

  • The company was on the defensive from the start and never truly owned the message, which led to more confusion and paved the way for misinterpretations.
  • How to best squash misinformation campaigns should be a routine step in every crisis playbook moving forward.

Go deeper: What we know about the Ohio train derailment.

Go deeper