Metro’s Collapse in Mexico City: A Crisis Communications Analysis
“Confronting a crisis is not a question of if but of when.”¹
Any organisation is likely to experience a crisis, where decisions and communication must happen under pressure and at risk of escalating in intensity.
The collapse of a metro line in Mexico City is an example of this type of event. Here is a brief analysis of the good, the bad, and the ugly of the government’s communication about the accident from a communications consultant perspective.
What happened? A tragedy in Mexico City’s metro.
On May 3, 2021, at around 22:00, an overpass in a metro line in the city’s southeast collapsed, killing 26 people and injuring 90. The accident happened in the metro’s Line 12, the newest one in the metro’s fifty-year history.
The ‘Golden Line’, as Line 12 is also known, was completed in October 2012. It was built during Marcelo Ebrard’s tenure as Head of Mexico City’s Government. It began operating during Miguel Ángel Mancera’s term. However, Line 12 has been riddled with scandals, construction problems, service suspensions and damage from the September 2017 earthquake.
The Good: Mexico City’s government initial response to the accident.
Less than an hour after the incident, Claudia Sheinbaum, Mexico City’s current Head of Government, informed of her visit to the accident’s site, and she explained that a collapsed girder was the cause of the incident.
This action showed empathy and leadership. People want to see the highest officials in charge of leading the communication and response in any crisis, especially when it involves the loss of human lives.
That same night, Marcelo Ebrard, current Foreign Minister and Head of Government of Mexico City during the Line 12’s construction, tweeted his sympathy to the victims and families and mentioned that:
“the causes must be investigated and responsibilities clarified. I remain at the full disposal of the authorities to contribute in any way necessary.”
Through this statement, Ebrard is making clear he is fully cooperating with the inquiry, thus helping him protect his reputation — and that of the current and former governments he has represented.
Another good action taken by the government was vowing on May 4 to conduct an independent investigation through an external company, in addition to the report from Mexico City’s Attorney General Office (FGJ).
In that same conference, Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, agreed about waiting for the investigation results and affirmed that:
“nothing would be hidden, we will act responsibly. We don’t hide things. We speak the truth.”²
The first 24 hours in a crisis are always one of the most important in terms of decision-making and meaning-making, that is, building a narrative to help people understand what happened.
Sheinbaum positively contributed to the initial response by being the leading voice in the communications response and committing to the truth by stating they would conduct an investigation.
It is always better to answer with ‘we don’t have all the answers’ than disclosing misleading information because every statement will be remembered, reviewed and contrasted against the ultimate truth. Additionally, independent investigations provide credibility to findings because they are meant to be partial and free of political interests and opinions.
For effective crisis communications, you need to have all the facts to avoid creating discrepancies or having to backtrack from your initial statements. It is always better to wait and have all the details instead of providing hard bottom lines you cannot undo.
The bad: Losing control of the narrative.
On June 13, 2021, The New York Times published an investigation based on government records, interviews and expert analysis that found “serious flaws in the basic construction of the metro that appear to have led directly to [the metro’s Line 12] collapse”³. The article involves prominent Mexican political and business landscape figures, including Marcelo Ebrard, current Foreign Minister.
National and international newspapers replicated the NYT findings amid the lack of official results from the government; FGJ announced on June 2 that the report would be ready in three to four weeks.
The month-long silence from the government meant that other voices—like the media — could fill the void of information using ex-official statements, government information and expert sources.
Instead of the government having proactive communication, they were now forced into reactive messaging to try to regain control of their narrative. In her Twitter account, Sheinbaum wrote:
“ Regarding the article that appeared in today’s NYT about line 12 and the claim that some have made that the information came from the city government, I categorically clarify that we have never used journalistic leaks to inform or do our work. We’ve been very responsible waiting for technical, professional opinions. It is not our style to leak information and it never will be. We are characterised by telling the truth directly without any intermediaries.”
Furthermore, Ebrard also had to go into crisis mode. He shared in his Twitter account the answers to NYT about its report, and a letter addressed to Maria Abi-Habib, NYT’s bureau chief for Mexico, where he wrote:
“My endeavour is to respond in the most objective manner and per the memory that constitutes the technical documentation or the resolutions that have arisen from the investigations or audits related to the execution of the work…That truth can only be built on the basis of objective expert opinions and enquiries that are deaf to the noise of scandal and detached from the noise of scandal and detached from any political interest.”
The ugly: Playing the blame game.
In his letter to the NYT, Ebrard implied that the crash could be tied to maintenance and works needed after the 2017 earthquake. But, that not only puts the blame on his successor, Miguel Ángel Mancera-who governed Mexico City from 2012 to 2018- but also Claudia Sheinbaum, who is Head of Government since 2018.
As a communications consultant, I would have avoided that mention though it is understandable given the context. A principle of damage control is to avoid shifting the blame to other organisations or individuals. Spinning the story or choosing the play the blame game can be counterproductive in being perceived as honest unless you can prove without a doubt that you have no blame in the crisis. Because, what if the official report findings lay the blame on you?
Sheinbaum and López Obrador did not hesitate to point out that there could be groups that would benefit from this crisis. They’ve tried to ‘expose the hidden hands’ or imply that someone against the government is behind the leaks and NYT article.
In a press conference on June 14, López Obrador asked to wait for the official reports. He also mentioned that there had been leaks from Sheibaum’s government and that:
“neither the head of government nor any authority can be sure that public servants will act with loyalty. In all governments there are not only those who do not agree, but also those who are against; that is how it is.”
On the other hand, Sheinbaum wrote on her Twitter: “We should ask ourselves what unclear interests are behind this article?”
That is why it is essential that Sheinbaum’s government fully disclose the conclusions from their report as soon as possible so they can be used both as a shield and a sword to protect the government’s credibility, considering the sociopolitical context.
However, they will need to consider that their findings will be contrasted against those first published by The New York Times, either by other media, opposition leaders, and other groups.
For effective crisis management, citizens will need to feel that no information, no matter how unflattering it is to the government, has been hidden or buried. Because the reality is that the truth can and will come out sooner or later. This crisis could cast a long shadow on the current local and federal governments if not handled properly.
I’ll update this analysis* based on future developments.
*The analysis was made on public statements given by government officials and media reports on the accident and Line 12’s history.
Sources & quotes:
Alzaga, I. 2021. Accidente en la Línea 12 del metro: resultados de los estudios del concreto se tendrán en 3 o 4 semanas. El Financiero. June 2. Link: https://www.elfinanciero.com.mx/cdmx/2021/06/02/accidente-en-la-linea-12-del-metro-resultados-de-los-estudios-del-concreto-se-tendran-en-3-o-4-semanas/
Forbes Staff. 2021. AMLO pide esperar dictamen sobre L12; ‘quieren poner a pelear a Marcelo y Claudia’. Forbes. June 14. Link: https://www.forbes.com.mx/esta-semana-dictamen-linea-12-metro/
Grant, W. 2021. Mexico City metro overpass collapse kills 26. BBC. May 4. Link: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-56977129
Lucas, N. 2021. Historia de la Línea 12 del Metro: la Línea Dorada que nació con mala estrella. May 4. El Economista. Link: https://www.eleconomista.com.mx/politica/Historia-de-la-Linea-12-del-Metro-la-Linea-Dorada-que-nacio-con-mala-estrella-20210504-0013.html
Sheinbaum, C. 2021. Twitter thread regarding The New York Times article. Link: https://twitter.com/Claudiashein/status/1404066211961393156?s=20
- Lehane, C. et al. 2012. Masters of Disaster: The Ten Commandments of Damage Control. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, p.3
- Morales, A. et al. 2021. Habrá investigación a fondo sobre el accidente de la Línea 12 del metro: AMLO. El Universal. May 4. Link: https://www.eluniversal.com.mx/nacion/amlo-habra-investigacion-fondo-sobre-el-accidente-de-la-linea-12-del-metro
- Kitroeff, N. et al. 2021. Why the Mexico City Metro Collapsed. The New York Times. June 13. Link: https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2021/06/12/world/americas/mexico-city-train-crash.html