I’ve been fighting a nasty virus for the last few days, and have missed out on the chance to pipe in on the West Virginia mine tragedy, and the media disaster that followed. So here are a few opinions before I get to my take:
The Flack: “Should we blame the messenger? I don’t think so.”
Mason Cole: “In a chaotic situation, it’s terribly hard to get a good grip on the steering wheel. The more that can be done, though, the better the communications process usually work, and the more everyone affected can have assurance about what they’re dealing with. “
Kami Watson Huyse: “Clearly the International Coal Group, the company who ownes the mine, did not have an adequate crisis communications plan.”
Jeri Cartwright: “If nothing else, this tragic event should remind every CEO and PR person to assign someone to develop a communications crisis plan.”
Scatterbox: “There is no question that International Coal Group violated every standard of crises management. The companyâ€™s lack of preparedness and incompetence in managing communications both within and outside the unfolding tragedy will unfortunately be studied by PR and management executives for decades to come. But much of that lesson will focus on the increasingly understood possibility that competing news interests will run with miraculous but unconfirmed headlines like a raging herd of snorting, blind buffalo.”
Jeff Jarvis: “But now, in our age of instant news and ubiquitous communication, the public sees this process as it occurs. Itâ€™s not the news thatâ€™s live; itâ€™s the process of figuring out what to believe thatâ€™s live.”
(Most of the above are found in my “Sez WHO?” reading list to the right. If you are one of those authors and I haven’t told you so, you guys are great.)
Let me now share my perspective.
During the initial aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I was working 18-hour days (In my Red Cross capacity.) I was literally chain-phoning, and the vast majority of my communication was incoming-external, to media. The remainder was internal, tracking down the latest information to feed those requests.
I am not a techno-boob. I was using Blackberry and e-mails to push as much information as possible. We were pushing media to a webpage, updated hourly with new shelter information. I was posting actualities and e-mailing them to radio stations, and that worked like a charm. I was leveraging everything I had.
What I couldn’t do was monitor everything that was going out. And sure enough, when a reporter (more likely a disc jockey) went crazy with imaginary information, it took me a while to find out about it. And it will drive you crazy, doing hours of interviews explaining why you can’t accept in-kind donations, only to find out a radio station is telling people what items to bring to your shelters.
Reporters will run with what they have — and many of them will do so based on their feeling that they “have enough.”
I’m not absolving the owners of the Sago mine for their lack of preparation. Lord knows there have been enough mining accidents to get national attention to prompt one to create a better plan. I am wondering, though, if preparation would have made a bit of difference in this case. Yes, the families had three hours of false hope. Do you think the media would have cared if it had only been an hour? Only 15 minutes? The “crushing heartache of false hope” still would have been the lead.
Had Sago corrected the issue promptly, there still would be the same criticisms going on right now. (Notice that no one is looking on this affair and saying “thank God it didn’t stretch to six hours.”) It’s unfortunate. Let’s learn from it. Let’s be prepared.
And God rest the souls of the lost, and the left behind.