January 6, 2006
Sago Mine: A Hard Lesson in Crisis CommunicationsBy Shane Briscoe
The dead miners, their families and their community are the major victims of the Sago Mine Disaster, and deserve our full compassion. But the company is also suffering, and will continue to suffer, from the genesis of the accident, and from its handling of information as the tragedy unfolded. Responsibility and liability will be asessed bureaucratically and in court, and many facts are yet to be known. But it is not too soon to learn some lessons from its behavior during the rescue attempt.
Classic crisis communications. That was my assessment of the International Coal Group's (ICG) handling of the tragic Sago Mine explosion that trapped 13 miners, up until the very final stages of the gripping story.
They were cautious, careful not to speculate, concerned, informative and available—all the things a company should be in a crisis situation. ICG in particular was in a bad spot. They had recently acquired a mine with what the news media called a questionable safety record.
ICG clearly wanted to do the right thing. They avoided raising false hopes, yet refused to concede defeat as they managed the heroic effort to rescue the trapped miners and deal with their families, government agencies and hordes of reporters asking leading questions. Several times during the coverage, I nodded my head in agreement with the outstanding job ICG's CEO and spokespeople were doing in communicating events as they unfolded.
Then, at the very last moment, (if you will pardon the expression) the roof caved in. Somehow, the message emerged from the depths of that mine that 12 miners had been found alive. It is still unclear exactly how the false news came to be issued. Some reports say it was overheard cell phone conversations or loudspeakers carrying communications with the rescue workers. Some reports say that the Governor of West Virginia was the one who seemed to corroborate the account of 12 survivors. Relatives claim the company told them the good news, but in the heat and emotion of the moment it would be very understandable for them to have been confused over exactly who said what. And it most certainly would not have been in ICG's interest to release an unconfirmed report; moreover, given their careful handling of the crisis up to that point, it seems highly unlikely they would have made such a huge mistake.
However the miscommunication happened, the news spread like wildfire. Relatives rejoiced, the state governor, ICG management, the Red Cross and people around the world breathed a big sigh of relief at the miraculous rescue... only to have all our hopes cruelly dashed just hours later when we learned the real story: Just one miner had survived. The rest were dead. Joy turned immediately to grief, anguish and anger. That reaction, too, was completely understandable.
But as the events are investigated, dissected and reconstructed in weeks to come, I am certain we will learn that the mining company did not intentionally deceive us. What would have been the point, after all? More likely, a rumor based on a misunderstanding simply got out of control and everyone, from the news media to the ICG leadership to the governor to the friends and relatives of the trapped miners, to all the rest of us across the world who were following the story grabbed onto the apparent miracle and held on for dear life.
If there was one failure on ICG's part it is that they did not immediately step in and quash the rumor of 12 survivors, or at least say that they had no corroborating evidence and were treating the report only as a rumor. That would have made them look like the Grinch, but in hindsight, it would have been the right course of action.
What this incident does illustrate is the importance of avoiding all speculation at all costs in a crisis situation, no matter what the temptation, no matter what you hear. Don't say anything until you know it for a fact. If rumors arise, quash them immediately, even if the rumors appear to be good news. Wait until the facts can be verified firsthand, regardless of the temptation to put a positive face on things, regardless of the pleadings for more information by victims' loved ones, regardless of relentless prodding by reporters. Do not give in to speculation. Do not announce anything until you are certain of the information and correct any misinformation immediately.
You may face recriminations during the crisis and afterward for not being more forthcoming or timely in releasing news, but that is a price you should be prepared to pay. In a disaster, there is always a price to pay; the only question is how high. The public media demand for information is naturally very intense when lives aare at stake and a dramatic rescue is underway. Even though it may lead to denunciations, it is important to make sure that information is based on fact, despite pressure to be informative and a desire to be portrayed as 'open' and 'cooperative.'
The worst thing that can happen is what happened at the Sago Mine: hopes raised about as high as they could possibly go, only to be dashed about as badly as anyone could possibly imagine.
What had been a classic example of excellent crisis communications has turned into a disaster of monumental proportions, one that will be studied by lawyers, public relations executives and company managements for years to come. And everything turned on a dime.
The Sago Mine disaster offers an excellent though hard—gained lesson in crisis management. Every company should learn from it.
As for the news media, newspapers all over the country ran front—page stories of the miraculous rescue of 12 miners. In most cases, the presses had already run and there was no turning back. I am normally very critical of the mainstream news media, but I cannot fault them for getting caught up in the story that appeared to be unfolding, anymore than I can fault the relatives for grasping at straws of hope, however small.
I do fault the media for all the emphasis on blame, citing 'hundreds of safety violations' without noting that those violations date back as far as 1999, whereas ICG only acquired the mine this past November. That is simply bad reporting.
Shane Briscoe is the pseudonym of a corporate vice president for communications at a major American company, and publishes the blog Ayesright.