Wednesday, January 4, 2006

Coal company bungles crisis

When it comes to mistakes in crisis communications, International Coal Group, who had 13 employees trapped in a mine explosion, may have just set the new standard. Shortly after midnight last night, someone communicated that the remaining 12 miners had been found alive, but three hours later the company announced that in fact all but one had died.

CEO Ben Hatfield confirmed that "the initial communication [came] from the command center. But it was wrong." According to MSNBC News, the call came from the company or the governor's office. The New York Times said word of a rescue spread through a cell phone call from someone at the command center to relatives waiting at a nearby church...not through official channels. The mistake was compounded when the company waited more than three hours to issue a correction, despite knowing that not everyone was alive 20 minutes after the error.

Over those three hours the families of victims went from joy to anguish to anger. They have taken to calling the company "liars" and "evil." International Coal Group is going to find out the hard way that anger turns victims into powerful enemies. Lawsuits, which were likely before, are now certain and will be just as much about hurting the company as helping the victims. After making the correction, Hatfield said "Welcome to the worst day of my life." Indeed.

What went wrong? If initial reports are correct, the company is guilty of two major crisis communications sins. First, they failed to maintain control of the situation. Whether the erroneous communication came from them or not is almost irrelevant. They should have controlled all communications from the command center, something the CEO confirmed did not happen. Second, they failed to designate an official spokesperson. If all communications had come through one person (and audiences had expected that), they probably could have avoided the error or lessened its impact.

These errors are just symptoms of the underlying problem: not having an adequate crisis communications plan. What makes that even more amazing is the highly dangerous work performed by the company and their history of problems. Another sure sign of communications failure is a visit to their corporate web site. As of this post (three days after the incident occurred) there is nothing to be found acknowledging the accident or providing any information to the public. A Google search revealed no corporate response of any kind. This has all the tell-tail signs of a company that was unprepared for a crisis.

What can they do now? It's difficult to say if anything can save their reputation, but there are things they can do to mitigate the damage. First, they need to cooperate fully with all investigations and be completely transparent with the public. This includes the communication error. They must let the public know exactly how the break-down happened. Second, they must show genuine empathy to the families of the victims. They should start with paying for all funeral costs, travel costs for families, etc. It's the least they can do. Third, they must take visible, concrete steps to insure that this never happens to their company again.

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