Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Mine Tragedy Teaches Hard Crisis Management Lesson

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. They 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. The news spread like wildfire. Relatives rejoiced, the Governor of West Virginia, 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. It 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.

I don’t know the circumstances of how the false information came to be delivered. Perhaps ICG could have done something to quash the rumor before it got legs and started running, but perhaps not. Only time will tell.

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. You may face recriminations afterward for not being more forthcoming or timely in releasing news, but that is a price you should be prepared to pay. 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.


At 7:50 AM, Blogger Rosa Sion said...

You give a pass to the media for not following the same procedure as you recommend for the company executives on insisting the report of the surviving miners was unconfirmed.

Otherwise my agreement complete on your assessment of the lessons for crisis management.

At 11:47 AM, Blogger Patrick said...

I found you by way of American Thinker's carrying this post.I'm researching my next post on unconscious assumptions leading to miscommunication. After reading your story, I can hear a weary, desperate survivor saying though a hole in the debris, "I'm here. There's twelve of us...." and before he finishes, word flashes to the surface: 12 alive! And the rest is history. Confirmation in crisis is indeed critical, as it is in everyday communication. Sometimes it is innocent miscommunication that leads to crisis.


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