In the moments immediately following the Aug. 1, 2007, collapse of the I-35W bridge, speculation ran rampant through media, political and transportation circles as to what — or who — was responsible for that horrific tragedy. For some, speculation quickly evolved into premature conclusions, before even a single piece of the ill-fated bridge had been examined by experts.
For most, speculation reflected understandable human nature: the need to know and the desire to quickly explain the inexplicable and reach an understanding of events, especially when dealing with the tragic loss of innocent lives.
Under the barrage of unofficial theories and erroneous pronouncements, however, state and federal officials urged caution and patience. A thorough, professional and definitive investigation would take time, and uninformed speculation was counterproductive to serving the public interest.
In last week’s two-day hearing to release the National Transportation Safety Board’s official report on the collapse of the I-35W bridge, the virtue of patience in assessing a crisis was clearly shown and officials’ early calls for restraint were proven correct.
Standard crisis communication and response procedures call for regular, frequent, thorough and factual communication from appropriate authorities to all affected stakeholders. In many crisis situations, maintaining a steadfast commitment to factual and verifiable information is critical to securing trust and ensuring public safety. Moreover, for an organization on the front line of a crisis, its long-term reputation depends, in large part, on the quality of its response and the information it communicates. In the heat of a crisis, when media and stakeholders are clamoring for answers or prematurely offering theories of their own, it is important for an organization to provide facts.
Lessons for media, public officials and others
This important responsibility for factual communication during a crisis is not borne alone by front line organizations. Media, elected officials, Internet bloggers, auxiliary government agencies and other stakeholders to a crisis should all recognize the value and importance of communication based on factual information, and also realize the potentially negative consequences of rash speculation and misinformation.
The National Transportation Safety Board’s report on the collapse of the I-35W bridge was 16 months in the making. To determine the facts of the cause, the NTSB relied on highly trained experts in structural engineering and design, construction, bridge maintenance and inspection, forensic modeling, metallurgy, physics and finite element analysis. The NTSB worked in concert with the Federal Highway Administration’s Turner Fairbank Highway Research Center, the University of Minnesota, the State University of New York at Stony Brook and Sandia National Laboratories.
The NTSB’s painstaking work resulted in 24 conclusions, 10 recommendations to improve the safety of our nation’s transportation system, and the definitive determination that the probable cause of the collapse was the inadequate load capacity of critical gusset plates due to a design error more than 40 years ago. The buildup of weight on the bridge over decades, combined with concentrated loads from construction activity on the bridge at the time of collapse, brought the under-designed gusset plates to their tragic breaking point. The NTSB also stated that if the gusset plates had been properly designed, the bridge would have been able to safely sustain the identified loads.
Much early speculation turned out to be erroneous
The NTSB further concluded that the following did not contribute to the collapse: corrosion, floor truss fractures, preexisting cracking in the bridge deck truss or approach spans, temperature effects, or shifting of the piers. The NTSB also stated that the I-35W bridge was inspected according to national inspection standards and more frequently than required, and that those inspections “would not have been expected to detect design errors.” While these issues were the primary focus of early (and erroneous) causal speculation, only time and expert analysis could reach these conclusions.
The NTSB’s 16-month investigation was thorough and deliberate, and was conducted by the nation’s best engineering forensic minds using the most advanced technology available. The definitive findings stand in stark contrast to the speculative and damaging rhetoric that immediately swirled around the I-35W crisis.
The NTSB report underscores important tenets of crisis communication and response: that patience and professional deliberation are critical in determining the facts of a crisis; and that from the outset, communication from all sources should be founded on verifiable facts in order to best serve the public interest and the long-term credibility and reputation of all parties involved.
Bob McFarlin is a vice president at Weber Shandwick Worldwide, Minneapolis, in its corporate, community and public affairs practice. At the time of the bridge collapse, he was the assistant commissioner for policy and public affairs at the Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT).
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