A p.r. disaster


Published: Sunday, January 8, 2006 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, January 7, 2006 at 11:28 p.m.
It began like a textbook case of how to successfully manage a crisis.
Thirteen miners were trapped underground in West Virginia, and the company that owns the Sago mine was holding regular news briefings, sharing information with the miners' families and cooperating with government regulators.
Then a second crisis turned success into a textbook case of crisis mismanagement.
"They did a really good job until about midnight," says Larry L. Smith, president of the Institute of Crisis Management in Louisville, Ky.
What followed was "a gigantic communications failure," says Rita Kirk, chair of Southern Methodist University's division of corporate communications and public affairs.
An incorrect report that 12 miners had survived the blast that trapped them more than 40 hours earlier reached the miners' families and the news media, and was spread worldwide by cable news reporters and morning newspapers.
The International Coal Group, or ICG, admits that it knew in 20 minutes or so that the report was wrong - there had been only one survivor - but the company said nothing for another three hours.
ICG officials told reporters that to avoid hurting the families more than necessary, they wanted to be sure they had the correct information before they went before the cameras. The families were devastated. Threats of violence and lawsuits followed.
"Every crisis is like an earthquake, and every earthquake has aftershocks," Smith says. "This one has already had two or three. The threat of the first lawsuit is another one."
Crisis management professionals say they understand ICG's desire for accuracy, although a three-hour delay - even a one-hour delay - is too much when lives have been lost and emotions are strained.
The company must maintain control of the situation and the flow of information to guarantee accuracy. ICG had lost control - possibly, Kirk says, because a rumor was passed to a family member via a cell phone.
"This is one of those times when you need to confiscate all the cell phones in the room and allow no information out unless it's official," she says.
ICG "should have immediately gone back in and said 'hold the phone. The information we got is incorrect, and we are trying to sort it out right now, and we will get back to you,"' Kirk says.
Stan Lampe, a former corporate spokesman for Ashland Inc. who has managed similar crises, says it is often difficult to get complete and accurate information at an accident scene, but it's worse to get it wrong.
"It is terribly difficult to have to backtrack and correct statements you have made, especially if it has to do with the loss of life," he says.
To prevent such secondary crises, companies often designate a corporate executive or spokesman as the "central source" of information 24 hours every day during the crisis, says Thomas Preston, president of Preston Global, a public relations and crisis management firm.
Reporters and the public are told that information from any other source is suspect until confirmed by the central source, Preston says. "Any other information you accept at your own risk."
ICG had no central source. Initially, it used its in-house attorney, often called the general counsel, as its spokesman at news conferences, but Preston says that was a mistake.
"They are the world's worst at that," because lawyers focus on legal issues and are not trained in public relations, he says. "The wisest companies call an independent firm to guide them through the crisis."
Later, the company's CEO, Ben Hatfield, served as ICG's spokesman at news conferences.
Hatfield had other things he should have been doing, say Preston and Lampe.
The CEO should assess the situation, support response teams and reassure government regulators of the company's cooperation, Lampe says, while letting others make the public statements.
"The top person in a company should never be the ongoing spokesperson in a crisis," Smith agrees. "If the CEO screws up, if he misspeaks in any way, there isn't anybody left to step in and fix it.
"Now his (Hatfield's) credibility is terribly damaged," he adds.

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