Thursday, January 05, 2006

When crises and news deadlines collide

Hope shows its cruel side in mine tragedy

It's a case study in crisis communications that will be talked about for years to come. In West Virginia, state and Sago mine company officials still face glaring camera lights and outraged grieving families. Bad information had given false hope to the families of the 12 men trapped by a blast in the coal mining town of Tallmansville.

Yesterday a tearful Ben Hatfield, president and CEO of the International Coal Group, apologized to loved ones of the dead Sago workers. He said that he should not have let them believe for nearly three jubilant hours that the miners were safe.

Hatfield told a packed news conference that he should have gone to the church where the families were gathered and told them of conflicting reports on the miners' fate. Instead, he admitted to standing by as the families celebrated what they called a "miracle." Hatfield said he regretted the way in which events unfolded.

"Communication problems only added to the tragedy," he said.

A West Virginia official told reporters late Tuesday night that the miners were alive and being examined at the mine. Newspapers on Eastern and Central time zone deadlines picked up the erroneous reports of the rescue. Many papers headlined the "miracle" Wednesday morning.

Hatfield said the initial false report resulted from a "miscommunication" between rescue crews in the mines, the above-ground command center and families waiting in the church.

"What happened is that, through stray cellphone conversations, it appears that this miscommunication from the rescue team underground to the command center was picked up by various people that simply overheard the conversation, was relayed through cellphone communications without our ever having made a release," he said.

He stressed that company officials never issued false reports. But the bad information "spread like wildfire," he admitted.

Aggressive news coverage also figures prominently into the equation. Steven Silvers writes about the deadline-driven media on Scatterbox.

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defiant goddess said...

This was devastating.

Deb S. said...

Goddess: Yes, it is. My heart sunk when I heard the news. I also thought to myself, "Boy, I feel sorry for the folks who have to do damage control on this one!" I guarantee you that media and PR experts will talking about this incident for years. One of the first rules when handling a crisis like this is TIMELY DISCLOSURE.

As far as the media is concerned, it needs to take responsibility for running with this story without confirming the information.
I worked in newsrooms for years so I understand how competitive and deadline-driven the industry is. But there really is no excuse for running with unconfirmed reports on such a delicate story.

As for the coal mining industry, it didn't enjoy a great reputation before this disaster. Coal mining definitely gets a black eye on this one.

And as for the mining company, International Coal Group, can you say "pain and suffering"?

Malik said...

Much the same happened with Katrina. 200 bodies in the Superdome turned out to be six. BTW, the Seattle Times has an excellent article (reg. required) detailing the Katrina fiasco. I think the cause of the phenomenon is a combination of slippage in basic journalistic standards and an appetite for sensationalism among news producers. Part of the reason alternative news sources such as blogs have grown so fast is because the public has little confidence in the journalistic integrity of corporate news organizations.

OORANOS said...

Have a good time

Deb S. said...

Malik: Well said. Thanks for the link to The Seattle Times article. It's an excellent example of what you are talking about. Issues surrounding Katrina certainly present themselves as case studies in crisis communications and sensationalist journalism.