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The West Virginia Mining Disaster: A CEO’s Response

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So far the responses from the Massey Energy Company related to the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch coal mine in West Virginia play right into the media’s need for winners and losers/victims and villains and will keep the issue in play longer. Massey CEO Don Blankenship has been combative at the least:

- “Violations are unfortunately a normal part of the mining process,” Mr. Blankenship recently told reporters. “There are violations at every coal mine in America, and U.B.B. was a mine that had violations,” he added, referring to Upper Big Branch. “I think the fact that MSHA, the state and our fire bosses and the best engineers that you can find were all in and around this mine, and all believed it to be safe in the circumstances it was in, speaks for itself as far as any suspicion that the mine was improperly operated,” Mr. Blankenship said.

- Blankenship’s “shoot from the hip” style has previously created a strong perception that his and his firm’s commitment to safety is secondary to profits. After a 2006 mine fire that killed two workers, Blankenship sent the following memo to his superintendents: “If any of you have been asked by your group presidents, your supervisors, engineers or anyone else to do anything other than run coal (i.e., build overcasts, do construction jobs, or whatever), you need to ignore them and run coal,” said the memo. “This memo is necessary only because we seem not to understand that coal pays the bills.” In a follow-up memo a week later, Mr. Blankenship backtracked, saying some superintendents might have interpreted his first memo as implying that safety was a secondary consideration; in the second memo he called safety the company’s “first responsibility.”

- Escorted by at least a dozen state and other police officers on Tuesday, according to several witnesses, Mr. Blankenship prepared to address a crowd of families and mineworkers, but people yelled at him for caring more about profits than miners’ lives. After another Massey official informed the crowd of the new death toll, one miner threw a chair.

At CommCore Consulting Group we tell our clients that one of the first rules of crisis communications after a fatal or injurious incident is to quickly, publicly and visibly express sincere concern for the dead, injured, their families and their co-workers, and take concrete and substantive steps to alleviate their suffering. The business and legal aspects of the response will follow in due course. The CEO sets the tone through his or her external and internal communications. Media statements like Blankenship’s are also bound to attract further scrutiny from regulators, prosecutors and plaintiff attorneys.

Former Exxon CEO Lawrence Rawl, a combative oilman with a tough, craggy physical presence, is often cited as a textbook case of how NOT to respond to a crisis after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1987; he waited six days to make his first public statement, did not visit the scene of the accident until three weeks after, and appeared unconcerned. The spill itself was not the world’s worst, but took on the public dimensions of such largely because of the company’s slow response to TV images of oil-covered birds and damaged fisheries.

What do you think of Blankenship’s crisis response as reported by the media? Do you perceive him as pragmatic, standing up for his company and his industry during tough economic times when coal and the dirty work required to produce it are of paramount importance? Or do you perceive him as unnecessarily insensitive and ruthless, and causing himself, his company, his industry and his employees more harm than good by his combative stance?

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