PR Roundup: Norfolk Southern, Tesla, Hyundai and Kia Show Varied Ways of Addressing Public

mushroom cloud over east palestine ohio after Norfolk Southern train derailment

This week the Super Bowl came and went, and most communicators are likely suffering from Super Bowl industry coverage fatigue. Valentine’s Day also came and went this week, and we hope you are enjoying a nice box of assorted chocolates at your desk for a daily treat. That being said, we took the opportunity to highlight some other notable news stories that have important PR implications. 

The “public” connection to public relations really hits home in all of these instances, as each incident greatly affects the related community in some way. It increasingly falls on the communicator to shape not only a response, but a plan of action and community engagement to satisfy the needs of those affected. 

So much of PR now relies on backing up words with actions. And yet, some corporations and executives still lack an understanding on how this impacts the public. 

Norfolk Southern Railroad Skips Out

What happened: East Palestine, Ohio residents are seeking answers about a dangerous Feb. 3 Norfolk Southern train derailment. The train, carrying toxic and flammable materials, burned for several days, causing a dark looming smoke plume, which forced a regional evacuation. 

The Associated Press reported some contaminants reached the Ohio River. Precautions and testing continue to ensure the contaminants do not make it into the drinking water. 

Residents have questions as to what kind of exact danger they are in. The town of East Palestine scheduled a community town hall to address these issues, but Norfolk Southern refused the invite. The company claimed in a statement that it originally hoped to attend, but found it a “growing physical threat” for employees. 

Communications lessons: Avoiding human connection does not put the “public” in public relations, especially in a crisis situation. We saw another instance of this last week when Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan sent COO Andrew Watterson in his place for a Congressional hearing regarding the company’s holiday network meltdown. 

As Red Banyan CEO Evan Nierman wrote, “Jordan’s absence will likely prompt more questions than it will answer.” A similar situation is now happening to Norfolk Southern not only in Ohio, but around the United States. 

It may sound like common sense, but the fastest way to get in front of a crisis is to confront it head on. Norfolk Southern is a very large company. It can afford security. Politicians at the Ohio state and federal levels are now involved in saving the citizens in surrounding areas from further damages to their health and the environment. They can also help with security. 

And even if the company did not want to attend in person—what exactly have we been doing for the past several years? Working remotely! Ship a large-screen TV to the meeting, and schedule a Zoom call where you can make a statement in real time and answer questions from the audience. 

Copping out allowed a weak statement to be shared via a leak on social media. This is not the best way to control the narrative. 

Showing up means facetime, not just monetary donations. Showing up means offering representation, even when it seems difficult. Norfolk Southern is on the verge of losing the trust of not just that town in Ohio, but a whole nation, simply because it refused to show up when it needed to most. And trust takes an awful long time to repair, much like the environment destroyed by that derailment. 

Tesla Squashes Union

What happened: Unions seem to be having somewhat a resurgence in the U.S. in recent years. Concerns ranging from pay and family leave benefits to labor laws and factory safety have prodded employees to organize, where strength in numbers can work toward greater employer accountability. 

Tesla fired a group of software workers at a Buffalo factory 24 hours after they released a letter affirming their intentions to unionize. Organizers filed a report with the National Labor Relations Board, claiming the actions were taken in retaliation—which is illegal in the U.S. 

Tesla released a statement late Thursday, claiming the layoffs were part of an annual review process, including a detailed timeline of events. Tesla says the company let go of the employees on Feb. 3, not finding out about the plans for unionization until 10 days later. 

Communications lessons: One of the trickiest communications relationships continues to be between companies and unions. Workers call out companies for shortcomings, and companies need to address that. 

The U.S. has a storied history of union achievements, and organizing is not going away any time soon. Unions no longer appear only at the largest organizations like education and manufacturing. Now unions have proven successful for service workers at Starbucks and Trader Joes

Rarely does a company/union spat get swept under the rug. Everyone is an employee. Everyone can identify with employees. Most folks work hard to provide a better life for themselves and their families. When layoffs occur and unions are silenced, the public looks at the bank rolls of those in charge to see if they could relate. Most of the time, the numbers do not match up. 

Elon Musk, Tesla CEO, has publicly voiced his opposition to unions, not doing much for Tesla’s position here. How can the public trust the statement put out by the company, when its main spokesperson clashes with the message it’s delivering? 

Robert Josephson, former corporate affairs leader at FTI Consulting, now global head of media relations at Merck, told PRNEWS in 2022 that communicators play a crucial role in establishing healthy relationships between executives and employees. And those relationships can be fostered to make the company even better because workplace issues not known to senior leadership can be brought forth. 

Josephson also says leaders need to show empathy when employees bring up concerns. Not doing so can harm the reputation of a company, particularly in this age of social media. 

“When companies have a poor track record on addressing concerns, not listening or even being dismissive, that is what becomes a reputational challenge and where employees seek answers elsewhere, like from a union.” 

Automaker Responds Proactively to Viral Trend

What happened: Remember when TikTok used to just be for dance-offs? Well now content creators are instructing users how to steal cars in its latest viral challenge. 

The dangerous trend began in the summer of 2022, catching the attention of local police departments and car owners. The challenge focused on Kia and Hyundai car models. According to a report by CNBC, “St. Petersburg, Fla. police reported more than a third of all car thefts there since mid-July [2022] were linked to the TikTok challenge.

Granted, it’s been almost half a year since the media reported this nuisance, but Kia and Hyundai finally announced a software update for the cars to stop the theft method instructed by the challenge. The update will impact almost 10 million car owners. 

"Hyundai is committed to ensuring the quality and integrity of our products through continuous improvement and is pleased to provide affected customers with an additional theft deterrent through this software upgrade," said Randy Parker, CEO 0f Hyundai Motor America, in a press release.

Communications lessons: It’s one thing for a company to issue a product recall on its own. It’s another to engage in social listening to discover a consumer threat and proactively respond. While the rollout may have taken a bit, it shows how committed the company was to the problem, particularly with the safety of its drivers in mind. 

Making driver safety a priority bolsters a reputation of a company, ensuring a relationship of trust between maker and owner. 

Also, it's important to pay attention to the evolution of media monitoring. Social listening is no longer a nice-to-have. It’s mandatory. And it’s more than just what people are saying about your product. Having a proactive social listening strategy can reveal community struggles and ways to improve a product—before it gets to a crisis level. 

Have a great long weekend (if you have one), and happy birthday George Washington!

Nicole Schuman is senior editor for PRNEWS. Follow her: @buffalogal