Holmes Report Blog

The Holmes Report blog focuses on news and issues of interest to public relations professionals. Our main site can be found at www.holmesreport.com.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Mining Disaster: This AP report in The New York Times makes things look a little worse for International Coal Group (see post immediately below this one), which appears to have handled a difficult situation badly, and its aftermath too.

It now seems that the company was aware that relatives were celebrating the (inaccurate) news that their loved ones had survived, and did nothing to correct the misinformation, at least for several hours. The article quotes the CEO, Ben Hatfield: ''Let's put this in perspective. Who do I tell not to celebrate? I didn't know if there were 12 or 1 (who were alive).'' I'm not suggesting that Hatfield needed to get that specific, but he might have warned the families as a group that their joy was premature.

Then there's this quote from the son of one of the dead miners: ''There was no apology. There was no nothing. It was immediately out the door."

Again, emotions run high during an incident like this one and people are looking for someone to blame. I have no way of knowing whether the company's announcement was sufficient in either content or tone. But this has the potential to turn into a major crisis, and lawsuits seem almost inevitable. The worst thing the company could do now is listen to lawyers advising "no comment," because it needs to get control of the reputation crisis before thinking about the legal problem.


  • At 10:53 AM, Blogger Mark Dill said…

    Out of the tragedy in West Virginia there are some important PR lessons. I can imagine how this happened. The rescue team calls someone at the company and reports that a survivor has been found. Someone leaps to a conclusion that all the miners are alive and immediately calls others. Through cell phones and e-mails the erroneous message proliferates. Within minutes, the company discovers the error, but operating within their accuracy ethic they elect to say nothing until they have total confidence in all the details. Three hours of celebration among the miner's friends and family ensue.

    The lesson is simple. The information age has defined a new communications environment, and yet too many companies operate under the delusion that the world is hierarchal and that they control the flow of information. But that's twentieth century thinking. The immediate response to the situation should have been to discredit the erroneous information and simply say that those reports were premature and the company is doing everything it can to confirm the actual details of the situation.

    The irony is that this company, given the business they're in, probably had a crisis communication plan. They probably even rehearsed it. But its apparent that, like Edward Smith, the captain of the Titanic, everything they knew was wrong. Born in one century and grappling with challenges brought on by the technologies of a new century, these people were caught with their pants down. The issue isn't what most companies define it to be -- controlling information. That's delusional. The issue is understanding how information is communicated in a word where the person on the street has become a media outlet.

    Mark Dill


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