The Canadian Public Relations Society

The Massey Energy Mine Disaster: “How to Mess Up Your Crisis Communications”

In public relations on May 10, 2010 at 4:44 pm

Massey Energy’s tragic coal mine accident in West Virginia offered a mix of good Crisis Communications and opportunities for books entitled, “How to Mess Up Your Crisis Communications”.

The following is a brief overview of how executives at Massey Energy handled their Crisis Communications.

Technical Briefings

While covered by the networks (ABC, NBC, CBS, CBC, Global, CTV, BBC), the content describing the rescue operations was excellent, but no company official was shown speaking at the briefings.

Regulators and politicians were shown speaking, but no technical person from the company – the source of all operational/rescue information – was shown explaining operational activities.

The briefings contained;

  • Superlative graphics showing what was happening underground
  • The information was current and accurate
  • Briefings were obviously occurring on a regular and consistent timetable
  • Full and timely disclosure of operational activities was consistent throughout (this may have been the result of the active and pressing presence of high profile regulator and political representatives, the sheer scale of this national tragedy and the local, national and international public and media attention it attracted)

Families

In the first two days many concerned employee family members were interviewed weeping into the cameras saying they were getting no information from the company.

This may be because:

  • The company was providing no information
  • The company was slow to provide information
  • Concerned employee family members did not know there was a Family Center
  • Concerned employee family members did not know where the Family Center was located where they could get updated information about loved ones (there were references to a Family Center in the media coverage, but no reference to its location and no interviews were done at the Family Center)

Spokesperson

Don Blankenship was the wrong person to assume Spokesperson duties. Every news story in the first two days referred to him as “controversial”. He clearly has a negative public profile from previous controversial decisions, actions, and/or behaviors implying questionable credibility.

His speaking style was dull, flat, monotone, dispassionate and completely lacking in humanity.

All media referred to him as the most politically powerful person in the state regarding coal implying backroom dealings further undercutting his credibility.

  • His statements were contradictory throughout the incident
  • References to safety being the company’s top priority rang hollow with each passing hour and accelerated down hill when the mine’s safety record was revealed
  • He admitted to speaking little to the families leaving it to technical staff to brief families
  • Little expression of concern
  • In day #2 he told the media the tragedy would probably mean “more regulation and no one wants that” further undercutting his statements on safety and delivering the final coup de grace to his credibility
  • In day #3 Blankenship was replaced by an executive variously identified as the COO, or a VP
  • The replacement was marginally better, but not wonderful
  • Allegations that Massey put production ahead of safety were made by some employees and former employees interviewed in silhouette to protect their identities
  • Attempts to counter these claims were weak and failed to stand up to scrutiny especially when the mine’s safety record was reported

Summary

  • Technically solid regarding the acquisition, analysis and delivery of information surrounding operations and rescue activities
  • Sloppy in the handling of families
  • Hideous in the selection and conduct of the Spokesperson(s)

The mine and the owners have serious safety and operational problems along with sloppy Crisis Communications

Tom Donoghue, APR, is president of  DONOGHUE & ASSOCIATES INC.

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  1. This is thought-provoking ie) making me want to watch that mess in Louisiana with a more practiced eye….how is BP doing? any differences between Canadian and US coverage? or between networks?
    Crisis happens. We can learn from it.

  2. Doug and I were tweeting back and forth about the piece he wrote for the Star Phoenix on how the BP crisis is unfolding on social networks. http://www.thestarphoenix.com/news/Social+media+spreads+spill+disaster/2974724/story.html

    I saw his point, but my reply was that in these circumstance an increased presence on social media wouldn’t have helped because BP’s message sucks and the medium they are delivering their crappy message is irrelevant. But if BP communicators had a bit more to work with (i.e. a real plan to address the problem) it may have mattered a great deal.

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