11 October 2007

Evolving Realities in Crisis Communications

This is a positive, albeit overdue, development:

HOLMES MILL --Rescue drills always have been a major part of mine safety at coal companies. But the nation's high-profile mine disasters over the past two years have forced the industry to practice in another area: dealing with victims' families and the media.

A mock disaster drill yesterday at an Eastern Kentucky coal mine had nearly 100 federal and state officials, miners and personnel role-playing as first-responders and investigators, as well as panicked family members and reporters...

...Safety advocates and industry experts said making family and media relations a part of disaster drills was a growing trend and much-needed concept. "It's a trend we're going to see more and more of," said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. "This is a way of showing that our responsibility extends beyond the life of the miners to the obligation to inform and comfort."

Earlier this year I led a crisis communications panel discussion here in Lexington for the American Association of Airport Executives, along with a group of local media that covered the plane crash that happened here last year. (full disclosure: I work with Blue Grass Airport, providing strategic communications counsel and support.)

Two major points came from the panel discussion that I think will be helpful for the mining companies as they prepare for their next crisis.

First, the plane crash in Lexington (and, of course, recent mining tragedies) demonstrated that the media will stop at nothing to get information - they will move whatever assets they have into every imaginable location to find data. This point goes for information consumers as well - they'll go anywhere to get it. That means social media.

The timing and location of the crash limited some of the social media activity in Lexington, but within hours there were completely fabricated statements on a handful of local blogs, and a number of over-the-top comments on the local newspaper site. This actually caused more trouble for the owners of the online properties than anyone else.

As hard as this is, staying ahead of the media is critical in the first 48 hours. Setting up a social network group is free and fast, and it's an effective way to check out EVERYTHING that could possibly be said about your crisis, and to cross-check the chatter with the facts you have available at the moment. Obviously, college students (who else?) used social media effectively at Virginia Tech.

Second - and this is particularly important for the mining companies, because their current drills don't seem to cover this - a crisis communications plan can't stop after 48 hours. In effect, a crisis communications plan for a plane crash extends beyond even the time it takes for the National Transportation Safety Board to issue a final report - that could be a year or more. As time passes, a company has to anticipate selective and partial releases of information related to the initial event. It has to account for restrictions on communication by regulatory or investigative bodies. It has to be mindful of the litigious nature of the plaintiff's bar. And it has to tread lightly as the media relentlessly pursues an answer to the question, "who's to blame?"

Most importantly, the company must understand the withering flack it will get if family members get information about their loved ones from the media before they get it from the company or the investigators. To that end, it's critical to cooperate fully with the investigators and to make sure you're on the same page regarding information for the families. Make sure who is releasing what to whom and when. It's very easy to forget this rule once the initial shock of the event has worn off, but the price for a lapse in judgment here is incredibly high.


Kami Huyse said...

There are four emotional stages in a crisis: Heroic, Honeymoon, Disillusionment and Reconstruction. A very long cycle indeed.

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