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Crisis communication adaptation strategies in the MM&A train explosion in Lac-Mégantic downtown: Going back to field communication

Marc D. David (Universite de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, Canada)
Marie-Eve Carignan (Universite de Sherbrooke, Sherbrooke, Canada)

Corporate Communications: An International Journal

ISSN: 1356-3289

Article publication date: 7 August 2017




The purpose of this paper is to deal with the adaptation of communication strategies set out in the pre-crisis plan implemented by the members of Quebec’s public safety authorities in the specific case of the rail explosion and fire that destroyed the downtown of Lac-Mégantic in July 2013.


Based on a triangulation approach combining three qualitative methodologies, namely in-depth interviews, analysis of communication artifacts, and news analysis, this research aims to determine how public safety authorities used the existing crisis management plan at the time of the Lac-Mégantic crisis. It also seeks to determine whether or not the crisis managers used emergent communication strategies, as defined by Mintzberg (2007). Finally, the case study also seeks to identify potentially unforeseen contextual elements that influenced the communication strategies deployed.


The analysis reveals that the disaster, whose magnitude and consequences were unprecedented in Canada, prompted those in charge of public safety to review the established crisis management communication strategies and practices in order to adapt to the realities of a particular terrain and context. It is important to mention, first, that the crisis was managed in an unforeseen context of a twofold digital divide that created a dead zone for emergency and public health messages; and, second, that direct communication with the victims revealed major difficulty in understanding such messages (literacy). As a result, the traditional and digital communication strategies established in the crisis management plan had to be rapidly reviewed in order to incorporate “old-fashioned” communication tools, such as giving out information door-to-door, meeting with people on their front porches, and holding informal street gatherings with public health doctors and social workers to better communicate messages to the disaster victims and to promote the adoption of safe behaviors.


The findings demonstrate that in a crisis and emergency context, communication efforts must sometimes deviate from the planned strategies and come back to simple, direct, and “human” communication methods in order to adapt to the realities of the victims.



David, M.D. and Carignan, M.-E. (2017), "Crisis communication adaptation strategies in the MM&A train explosion in Lac-Mégantic downtown: Going back to field communication", Corporate Communications: An International Journal, Vol. 22 No. 3, pp. 369-382.



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