Live from Music Row Thursday morning on The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy – broadcast on Nashville’s Talk Radio 98.3 and 1510 WLAC weekdays from 5:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. – host Leahy welcomed public affairs specialist Clint Brewer in studio to comment on the failed public relations handling of the East Palestine, Ohio train derailment.
Leahy: People there don’t like what we’re doing. It’s just a PR mess. Oh, p.s. There are a lot of health and environmental concerns going on there as well. You told me that we ought to wait because we missed that town hall last night because we worried about our safety. Really? I think we made a mistake there, Clint. How do I fix this problem?
Brewer: You become very visible in the community. You show up. You don’t go to a big, angry mob of people and avoid them. You avoid the mob by going from the beginning. You get up, you go, you be seen. You talk to community leaders.
You’re seen talking to community leaders. Certainly, you consult your legal counsel and your risk management people about what you can and can’t say. But you don’t avoid the site. That’s the biggest thing. You don’t avoid the town that it affects. You go.
Tennessee governors have done a great job of this over the years. Nobody controls tornadoes, which is a lot of what happens in the state, but they’re always there. And I think you’re very public about your cooperation with the government.
I think you’re very public about communicating to Washington, D.C. What has happened. Your concerns. It’s briefing, briefing, briefing, briefing, briefing. A constant flow of information, a constant show of concern for the community, and being as transparent as possible.
That’s the thing that most people make the mistake of, is that they try to hide the ball. They think if they don’t engage, then they mitigate their risk. A lot of times, failure to engage heightens your risk.
Leahy: The president and CEO of Norfolk Southern is a guy named Alan Shaw. He’s down in Atlanta. And so you think that guy ought to be up there in East Palestine today?
Leahy: He’s not going to go.
Brewer: No, but I mean, he should.
Leahy: He wants to say as far away as he can. And by the way, Alfred E. Buttigieg, where is he?
Brewer: Yes, well, that’s a whole separate issue. I think if I’m the railroad, I’m calling on the government to meet me there. It’s like we’ve asked the Secretary of Transportation to come to East Palestine.
Leahy: No, Palestine. Palestine.
Leahy: Everybody in Ohio listening said oh, really? But CNN, says Palestine. They got it wrong. It’s Palestine.
Brewer: It’s Palestine. Kind of like Lebanon is Lebanon. Same thing. The bottom line is you don’t run from it. It’s kind of like the countless clips of politicians and bureaucrats and people on Nashville TV over the decades when the TV reporter comes to interview them at the Capitol, and they turn and run down the hallway or the stairwell.
Leahy: You smile.
Brewer: You just turn around.
Leahy: Thank you for that question.
Brewer: And you just face the music. It’s not hard. It is hard, but it’s worse to have your back to the camera running down a stairwell or something. That’s the crisis communication disaster equivalent of what these folks are doing. It’s been poorly handled. There’s no way around it. It’s just been poorly handled.
Leahy: Would you tell the CEO of Norfolk Southern the following? The people there are not happy because you have said, we’ll test your water if you sign a waiver and promise not to sue us. They’ve like they’ve forced, like, 300 people to sign waivers to test.
Brewer: I’m confused. Is it not the job of the state’s environmental department and the federal EPA to tell people whether their water is safe or not? Why would you rely on a railroad that has, to my knowledge, absolutely no expertise in this area to test the water?
Leahy: It gets worse because in this instance the Ohio Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S EPA, they’re not going door to door and saying, hey, we’ll test your water for free.
Norfolk Southern has hired a water testing company and said, if you sign this waiver, we’ll test your water, but otherwise we won’t. You can understand why people are more than a little bit upset about this.
Brewer: Yes, that’s bad form all around. Why do people pay taxes? If we have an Environmental Protection Agency and we have a Department of the Environment at a state level that is coordinated with the EPA, how are they not involved? I’m sure they’re involved at some level, but why are people having to rely on the folks who created the disaster to test their water? Seems like a conflict of interest.
Leahy: Yes, you think so? Let me just add I think you’re exactly right. If this had happened here in Tennessee, I can tell you Governor Bill Lee, who we have occasionally had a few…
Brewer: This wouldn’t happen in Tennessee.
Leahy: Governor Bill Lee would have been there.
Brewer: Oh, no, question.
Leahy: He would have been there on the ground holding a press conference. That’s how we do it in Tennessee.
Brewer: When the Super Tuesday tornadoes happened in 2020, I live out in Wilson County. Mount Juliet was hard hit. The governor was there. The first lady was there. Senator Blackburn was there. Members of the state legislature were there. It was a full-court press.
Leahy: Nobody, Governor DeWine of Ohio was there at East Palestine, Ohio.
Leahy: For 45 minutes. That’s it. All this other stuff since not there. And in fact, he was there. You saw this at the press conference he held. The reporter from the NewsNation, because he was too loud was arrested. Did you see that? (Laughs)
Brewer: Yes. I don’t even know what that means. Too loud at a press conference? What is that?
Leahy: It’s being a reporter?
Brewer: Is it a police state up there? I don’t understand.
Leahy: The story gets even richer in this sense, journalistically. The governor of Pennsylvania last night, puts out a letter and says, or actually, it was not last night, but Tuesday night, puts that says, hey, Norfolk Southern, you didn’t look at all the options before the controlled burn.
He puts that out, like, the day before yesterday, on the 14th, on Tuesday, but on the day of the burn, on February 6th, he praised the burn. He said it went well. This is like a quarter mile away from the Pennsylvania border, by the way. He’s not been there. He’s not been up there.
And so he’s not showing up either. This is just a kerfuffle of failed leadership all the way around. The governor of Ohio, the governor of Pennsylvania, Norfolk Southern, Alfred E. Buttigieg, Joe Biden, and the EPA, they’re just not present. And people are noticeably angry.
Brewer: And they wonder why folks in the middle of America distrust the government.
Listen to today’s show highlights, including this interview:
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Tune in weekdays from 5:00 – 8:00 a.m. to The Tennessee Star Report with Michael Patrick Leahy on Talk Radio 98.3 FM WLAC 1510. Listen online at iHeart Radio.
Photo “Mike DeWine” by Mike DeWine.