Communicating in the Face of Disaster
The mining sector is no stranger to disasters and accidents. In the United States between 50 and 100 miners lose their lives each year working to extract resources. Mining companies cannot control the nature of the crisis that may hit them, but they can shape their response to the situation. A critical part of that response is communicating – to families, media, government and the investment community.
Done well, the so called “crisis communications” can mitigate the impact of a mine accident; done poorly, they can unleash a cascade of negative aftershocks.
In the U.S. alone, the 21st century has witnessed three major disasters – at Crandall Canyon, Jim Walter Resources Mine No. 5 and Sago Mine – as well as several minor ones. We can learn from their communications efforts – what was done properly, what was executed poorly and what was not done at all.
In Alabama lies one of the richest coal seams in the U.S. Jim Walter Resources, part of a New York Stock Exchange-listed conglomerate, owns three mines working that seam, JWR No. 5 mine and two others in the area. On the night of September 23, 2001, just weeks after 9/11, a section of the mine roof in JWR No. 5 collapsed, releasing a pocket of methane gas. A spark from a nearby battery charger ignited it, creating an explosion that injured four men, one of whom later died in hospital from his wounds. It was then that, in the laconic words of the Department of Labor, “a secondary explosion occurred.”
The truth is somewhat more horrific: a fireball of methane and coal dust raced through the mine, hot enough to melt metal. It consumed all the oxygen in the mine. The next morning everyone agreed that the 12 men left below ground could not have survived. With the fire still burning underground and the mine unstable, the rescue effort was called off. The bodies of the miners were recovered in the two months that followed the disaster. All told, 13 men died in the span of a day.
Fast-forward five years. Early on the morning of January 2nd 2006, 29 miners went underground in the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Only 17 would return to the surface alive. As in JWR No. 5, a methane explosion sparked the disaster. One man died in the blast while 12 others, unable to reach the surface, huddled down to await rescue. In the ensuing 41 hours all but one would slowly succumb to carbon monoxide poisoning.
Several miners left notes for their families, detailing their final hours and making the true dimensions of the disaster very human and tangible. Rescue efforts were slow and, in the words of the final report on the disaster, “everything that could go wrong did go wrong.” Even as the survivors penned their desperate notes in darkness, rescuers waited topside for permission to enter the mine. As at the later Crandall Canyon disaster, boreholes, remote cameras and robots were used to try to find survivors. Adding to the horrors of this disaster were the miscommunications. Rescuers underground initially reported finding the 12 missing men alive; this news rippled through the community and to the national media. The mistake was rapidly corrected as the rescuers discovered that only one of the men found was alive. However, the original version ran. USA Today‘s headline read “Alive! Miners Beat Odds.” It is the tragedy of hope betrayed. A little over two days following the explosion, the bodies of the dead miners were removed from the mine.
The next year’s calamity occurred outside the east coast coal country. About two hours drive south from Salt Lake City, Utah, is the Crandall Canyon Mine. In the early hours of August 6, 2007, pillars supporting the roof of the mine collapsed, causing a tremor that registered 4.0 on the Richter scale (bigger than the shockwaves created by the Chernobyl nuclear disaster). Six miners were trapped 5.5 km from the mine entrance. Boreholes were drilled, oxygen samples collected and a nation watched riveted to their TVs as cameras probed the underground debris for signs of life. It was enough to spur the rescue effort, despite the seismic instability of the mine. Ten days later another collapse killed three rescuers and the rescue was called off. Two more boreholes were sunk but no signs of life were found. The rescue effort ground to a halt as government, mine officials, miners and families realized the unthinkable – the six miners would remain entombed under the mountain. No bodies were recovered.
How Did Mining Companies Respond?
Two of the mining companies involved are traded on the NYSE and have market capitalizations ranging from $400 million to $1 billion. It is reasonable to assume that they have professional communications staff and access to consultants and thus would manage their crises better. This is largely true except that, in the case of the Sago Mine disaster, a single mistake proved catastrophic. The third disaster – at Crandall Canyon – was managed by a private firm with a headstrong CEO. Nothing but missteps and mistakes followed.
Jim Walter Industries, the conglomerate that owns JWR No. 5 mine, is no stranger to high intensity communications, having dealt with a buyout by Kravis, Kohlberg and Roberts as well as asbestos litigation.
The company actually had two crisis plans – one at the operational level at the mine and the other at the corporate level. It was to be expected that official company statements would be cautious. The two press releases issued by the company follow a template: a description of the situation (later an update), details on company efforts and supportive remarks about the miners and their families. There was one press conference after the event and many interviews with the media. All in all, the information flow was carefully controlled. Dennis Hall, Jim Walter‘s Director of Public Relations, was on the ground in Alabama and knew the men who died and their families quite well. He worked as family liaison for the company. This is all good, prudent crisis communications work – no speculation, demonstration of effort and resolve to deal with the situation and a show of compassion. The overhang of September 11th meant that it was considered regional news by most national media outlets, which preferred to focus on recovery efforts at Ground Zero and a national response to the terrorist attacks. It was only later that the mine disaster would get national pick-up.
The company tried to make amends by paying out funeral and travel expenses. It even paid out wages for the dead miners for the 40 days their bodies lay underground prior to recovery. However, just days after the disaster, the initiative went to the families of the victims and the story quickly became one of deliberate negligence, of the company ignoring safety issues and of higher than normal accident rates at the mine. “They wouldn’t listen. They didn’t do anything [about mine safety],” said one miner. This narrative spread from local and regional media outlets to national ones, including the Chicago Tribune. Even worse, the trust fund established by the company for the families of the victims became a bone of contention with the suggestion that the company was withholding the money from the families. The company, hampered by legal proceedings that prevented detailed comment, chose to ride out the repercussions of the disaster.
Over in West Virginia, the International Coal Group did not experience media neglect. In fact the Sago Mine disaster dominated the all-news channels such as CNN and MSNBC for the full two days. Anderson Cooper and Geraldo Rivera showed up. In face of this, the company managed to distribute information fairly effectively. It ran a textbook crisis communications plan – to avoid speculation and ‘what if’ scenarios, to support the miners’ families, to provide all relevant information quickly and without spin, to be cautious and to avoid raising hopes. I can find no fault with the company’s work until the media picked up the story that the miners had been found alive. No media outlet confirmed this story before running it. Fatally, the company let the erroneous information circulate for several hours before correcting it.
As it had with Jim Walters, attention turned to finding the culprit for the disaster. Media and union attention focused on safety violations. The company took what I think was a remarkable step, that of identifying the truly important constituency in the crisis. It reached out to make amends and gave something back, establishing the Sago Mine Fund for the victims’ families with an initial contribution of $2 million (Jim Walter Resources did the same).
Things went less well for Murray Energy, the owner of Crandall Canyon. Subject to the same level of media frenzy but extended over ten long days, the CEO, Robert Murray, chose to manage communications himself. The results were disastrous. For the media, it was true drama – hope, despair, bravery, reversals and a larger than life figure in the form of Murray himself. One could not script better television. The second tragedy gave it the air of a slow motion disaster. It was a slow news cycle and, as with the OJ Simpson trial, soon the disaster was the only thing on TV. Murray, however, seems to have thought he could cultivate the media and get them on his side, even taking camera crews down into the mine to the rescue site. He oscillated between expressing hope and voicing despair. He even managed to get himself barred from the briefings held for family members, allegedly because he shouted and disturbed them, making children cry. There was no discipline either of messaging or tactics. In the words of Captain Willard in Apocalypse Now, “I don’t see any method at all.” Murray did not control those aspects of the crisis that were in his power and instead let the crisis rule him. Coupled with the nature of the elements he could not control, the situation became a perfect storm, one that continues to this day with lawsuits and record fines.
Communicating during a crisis – when there is death or the imminent possibility of death – is different from managing an issue or conveying risk. The story often becomes less about the disaster and subsequent rescue efforts and more about the media coverage and the responses to it.
As these three disasters show, chance events can shape how a crisis unfolds and how it can be managed. Luck cannot be ignored. But, equally important, there are principles that, if adhered to, will serve one well in a crisis. One should:
- Focus on the really important audiences and the rest will follow. Murray made the mistake of cultivating the media instead of building rapport with the families and he paid the price;
- Quash rumours quickly – by establishing a ‘truth squad’ to monitor claims from media and other sources and correct them rapidly;
- Prepare – by developing a general outline of approach including likely scenarios and responses, expected tough questions and message dissemination tactics for specific audiences;
- Choose your media spokesperson carefully and train him/her well. Sometimes the person in charge is not the best choice for crisis communications;
- Make amends. Sometimes the most effective communications are actions, not words;
- Get ready for the shift from immediate response to the blame game. Know the likely positions of your opponents in these cases.
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