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Media and Crisis Management

Mine Explosion – Crisis Communication Lessons

Posted on: July 28th, 2012

Crisis Management: Mine Explosion – Crisis Communication LessonsFrom archives

There was plenty of pain to go around after the West Virginia coal mine explosion in early 2006: 1) grieving families of the 12 dead miners doubly cursed to lose a loved one after being cruelly misled to think all had survived; 2) mine company CEO Ben Hatfield, a seemingly decent man whose regular briefings were eclipsed by false reports of survivors that he did not correct for hours; and 3) reporters who bought the false hope and circulated it un-corroborated.

So what to focus on?

We can’t comfort the mine families whose profession kills about thirty workers a year in America.

There’s no surprise in the media’s failure. Editors and reporters believed the survival story as did the governor, the CEO, and the rescue command center for a time. Sure, all journalists should have qualified the report like the New York Times, NBC’s Bob Hager, and CNN’s Anderson Cooper, but that’s easy to say. Journalists were swept up in nearly hysterical jubilation in the middle of the night while facing morning deadlines. Besides, the 24 hour newschannels daily broadcast incomplete breaking news before the facts finally emerge.

So let’s look at Sago Mine owner International Coal Group, Inc. Where did it go wrong after doing so much right?

I liked the company’s briefing of relatives, then reporters, every two hours. I liked empathetic CEO Hatfield who, with an occasional assist from the governor, warned the outcome looked bleak, but that rescue efforts would continue. He foreshadowed the eventual fatal ending. (After the disaster, he promised jobs in other mines for Sago workers.)

Then the debacle. Morning newspaper headlines said the miners survived while live newscasts said no. All but one miner died, but for three hours families were led to believe the miners were found alive. How could such miscommunication occur and stand uncorrected so long?

With the luxury of hindsight, I see lessons:

Feedback loops. In a crisis, you must track how the outside world perceives your problem. CEO Hatfield knew, KNEW, that the families were ecstatic over the survival report, one he would learn to be false in about 40 minutes. Hatfield said he and the governor even exchanged hugs over the “miracle.” So the company knew full well what the people outside thought was happening inside the mine. But knowing what is happening is useless if the company does nothing about it. That leads to lesson number two.

Lightning speed communication. Even if you have incomplete information, with a white-hot atmosphere like that around the mine, you must feed information to the families and media, if only to say, “Early reports may not be correct. We urge everyone not to overreact until we have further information.”

Targeted messages. Messages during a crisis should immediately go to the heart of what is on everyone’s mind and every reporter’s lips. Hatfield apologized for the false report (miscommunication among rescuers), the delay (myopic desire to get all the information correct before saying anything further), and accepted responsibility. However, it took him five minutes to say that in his news conference. The authentically tearful Hatfield dragged his feet by delivering less critical information first, thus needlessly firing up impatient, skeptical reporters. He had the right messages and information, but, again, was slow to deliver it.

Good PR. Former federal mine safety spokesman Kathy Snyder said she was “shocked that my own agency was not stepping up to the plate to correct it.” Veteran state safety spokesman Joe Thornton insists he told 100 reporters, “We are hearing that 12 miners were found alive – but that has not been confirmed.” Yet the New York Times quoted Thornton as saying the miners would soon be taken to hospitals.

Maybe, simply, a whirlwind rumor that everyone wanted to believe overran good judgment everywhere. As Shakespeare said, “All are punished.”

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