CRISIS COMMUNICATION AND MINING: STAYING IN CONTROL
by Kathryn G. Arlen
When I first began writing for Miners News in 2008, I was impressed with one particular editorial from Harold Hough, commenting on the mining industry's overall public relations efforts. It was a presidential election year, and he observed that the mining industry was"losing battles at the grassroots level...One problem is that many mining companies have poor public relations skills." This troubled me. I was already a member of the Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) but also soon joined the Alaska Miners Association here in Fairbanks, and since then I have focused much of my communication education, training, and experience to hopefully help change that situation. Harold's comments rang true.
Outdated stereotypes and augmented negative focus highlighting past problems in the mining industry unfortunately play a dominant role in forming the general public's opinion(s) about mining activity. Changing that overall impression became a professional and intellectual challenge, so I sought additional input and recently attended a seminar presented by Dr. Joe Trahan, Trahan and Associates, based in Georgia.
One significant, critical issue facing the mining industry's public relations image is crisis communication, something relevant to anyone and everyone because the effective communication concepts addressing mining disasters are the same constructs dealing with other types of human crises, whether it's a mine cave in, factory explosion, or even a school hostage situation. As Trahan emphasized: "As one of the most crucial areas of public relations, crisis communication deals with the inevitable by targeting possible situations before they actually happen." And that means having a plan to not only prepare for these emergency situations but to also hopefully avoid them in the first place.
Let's quickly review recent mining disasters and the public relations problems they generated:
January 2006—the Sago Mine in northern West Virginia, when the
erroneous news that 12 miners were still alive leaked out while, in fact, all but one were dead. Lessons learned: always speak with one voice (avoid competing messages;) emotions distort rational thinking. [ref: "Sago Mine Disaster: A Crisis in Crisis Communications,” Public Relations Quarterly, Jan. 2006.]
August 2007--Crandall Canyon Utah mine collapse trapping six miners who were never rescued and ultimately causing the deaths of three would-be rescuers.
Mine owner Robert Murray was extensively faulted for a variety of PR missteps: "putting out unsubstantiated messages, going off-message, and [once again] getting emotional."[ref: “Utah Mine Collapse—A Communications Crisis”; www.davefleet.com]
April 2010--West Virginia again at the Upper Big Branch Mine (Massey Energy) when 29 miners were killed in a methane explosion. [ref: Canadian Public Relations Society, "The Massey Energy Mine Disaster 'How to Mess Up Your Crisis Communications.’"] "Sloppy" both in handling the families and overall communication, contradictory statements, little expression of concern, and poor selection of spokesperson.
Trahan’s Crisis Communication seminar, which he conducts all over the country, touched on these and many other types of public relations issues pertinent to any active mining organization. Some highlights covered the following:
- Have a plan, review it annually, and distribute it to everyone. Everyone needs to know what to do and who is in charge.
- Nip it in the bud. What kind of situation is it? Can you keep it from progressing into a crisis? Have a security liaison; be careful of having too many people trying to do the same thing at the same time. Major emphasis is at the beginning.
- Stay in control, stay “in your lane” (only talk about what you know,) and show concern in everything you do and say.
Then there are the “don’ts” as Trahan emphasized: “Do not minimize the problem, do not speculate, do not let the story ‘dribble out,’ as in the Tiger Woods incident, and never, never say, ‘No comment.’ If you do not talk, then the vacuum will be filled by something, or someone, else. ‘No comment’ means you’re guilty. Period.”
Kathryn G. Arlen MA [professional communication] is a consultant and freelance writer in Fairbanks, Alaska and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
How you next proceed is another formula of sorts: ASAP notify next of kin, then the rest of your own “internal audience,” and make sure you are prepared to physically accommodate the media and their needs prior to informing them. (I.e., equipment, communication center, transportation, badges, ID’s, food, etc.).
But the key element is preparation—“You will spend 80% of your time preparing,” Trahan stressed, “Before you get on the scene or begin the interview. And you must play ‘Devil’s Advocate.’ Be prepared. This is where we win: anticipation of questions. Have in mind good things to say about your organization plus the negative questions you know they will ask. And one more critical point,” he concluded, “never repeat a negative question.”
Finally, do not forget your “command message.” What is your position? What are you doing about it? What do you want them [i.e. media as relating to public] to remember? And always tell the truth and “nothing but the truth.”
Dr. Trahan conducts Crisis Communication and Media Training seminars across the country and can be contacted through his website at: www.doctrahanmedia.com.