The coal mining accident that claimed 12 lives last week was not the first of its kind, and it won’t be the last. (In fact, as I write this column, one of the top stories from the Associated Press is about a Kentucky coal miner who was killed in a roof collapse this evening.) Outside of the communities affected by the accident, the rest of the world will most likely remember the terrible case of miscommunication that led many people – most importantly the miners’ family members – to believe that all or most of the miners who remained trapped had survived. This miscommunication, of course, could have been prevented.
When an accident or disaster occurs, the first thoughts of those close to the situation are, “How can we help?” As public relations professionals, your first thoughts should be, “How can I get people the information they need?”
In the case of the West Virginia coal mining accident, the company involved – International Coal Group – had their chief executive officer on the spot within hours. Unfortunately, as National Public Radio reported, the CEO had little back-up when it came to PR, as he handled press conferences “with little assistance.”
CEOs are generally ill-equipped to handle delicate situations when immediacy is called for. This is because as the head of the company, the CEO has to handle an enormous amount of responsibility. Dealing with the media should not be one of these responsibilities.
For example, in this latest incident, the CEO had to deal with the rescuers, the government, the miners’ families, and the media. Had a competent PR person been on hand, they would have handled the media. Had a PR person been on hand when word filtered back to the miners’ families that they were alive, the PR person could have stepped in and recommended caution. As it stands, International Coal Group never made an announcement that all the trapped miners were alive, but with no PR person on the spot, rumors were allowed to flourish.
Companies and organizations large and small must be prepared for accidents and disasters. PR people must be on call to handle the situation to ensure that accurate information is being relayed to the general public. A communications plan must be in place, ensuring that the right people are dealing with the media and the right people are dealing with authorities. Misinformation can cause not just confusion; it can also hinder rescue and other safety efforts.
At the most basic level, when an accident or disaster occurs, the job of the PR person is to ensure that inaccurate information does not get passed from one mouth to the next.
Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the coal mining accident story is that it took the loss of lives for the media to pay attention to the issue of mine safety.
“The larger issue is that much of the press has abandoned reporting on health and safety regulation until disaster strikes. How many reporters have dug into the Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration, which under the Bush administration was run by a former Utah mine manager until last year? About as many as did pieces, before Hurricane Katrina, on why a former Arabian horse official was running the dysfunctional bureaucracy of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Heck of a job,” The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz wrote earlier this week.
“I have tried to get the general press interested,” Ellen Smith, owner of the trade publication Mine Safety and Health News, told Kurtz. “I just kind of gave up.”
We can all probably empathize with Smith. How many of us have tried to raise awareness with the media about important issues, only to be told that no one cares? Print out Kurtz’s story and keep a copy handy the next time a journalist tells you that something of public concern isn’t important.
One of the ironies, for me, about the coal mining disaster is that I had been spending an hour or so each week for the past year trying to get the media interested in a story about a shortage of skilled blue-collar workers. I have no stake in getting a story on the subject published. (Of course, I would assume that I would be quoted if I was successful in placing such a story, but either way it wouldn’t matter.) My interest in the subject came about because I cover coal mining companies from an investment perspective, and more than one company executive has complained about problems attracting and retaining skilled miners. The subject, to me, was very interesting and deserved some media attention.
In the aftermath of the West Virginia accident, I’ve seen a number of stories about the shortage of skilled miners. Ironically, a story about the subject was written by an Associated Press reporter just days before the accident. Unfortunately, only one newspaper – in coal country, not surprisingly – ran it.
I felt a little bit like Smith this past week, as I also recently gave up on trying to get the media to cover something that I felt was an important issue. Also like Smith, in the aftermath of the accident, I began receiving some calls about the miner shortage. I passed the reporters on to an industry source, mostly because I didn’t want to talk about the subject in the wake of a tragedy, but also because I was just plain mad. (“Oh, now you want to talk about this.”)
The unfortunate truth of the coal mining story is that the accident probably could have been avoided, and that the media is once again in the crosshairs for dropping the ball.
Twenty years ago, the unverified story about miners surviving probably would not have made it into many newspapers. The inaccurate “news” broke late in the night and many East Coast and Midwest papers scrambled to get what they thought was miraculous news in. By the time the real story was known, presses and trucks had to be stopped. Twenty years ago, the papers would have already been out the door with a story that was written when no one knew the fate of the miners.
Again, let this story serve as an example of why it’s important to monitor news coverage. It doesn’t matter whether the story appears in The New York Times or a blog read by someone’s family and friends. Inaccurate and false information can cause everything from brand damage to emotional distress. Unfortunately, the latter is more difficult to repair.
This article, written by Ben Silverman, originally appeared in PR Fuel (http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel), a free weekly newsletter from eReleases (http://www.ereleases.com), the online leader in affordable press release distribution. To subscribe to PR Fuel, visit: http://www.ereleases.com/prfuel/subscribe/.