TALLMANSVILLE, WV: International Coal Group's (ICG) handling of communications in the final hours of this week's coal mining tragedy in West Virginia severely damaged the company's reputation and could intensify federal action against it, communications pros say.
After news that 12 trapped miners had survived the ordeal spread to family members at a local church late Tuesday, ICG officials waited until after 3am on Wednesday to announce that, in fact, there was only one survivor and that 12 miners had died.
ICG President and CEO Ben Hatfield told reporters that the company knew within 20 minutes that the initial reports about 12 survivors were erroneous. He said the company had decided to wait to correct the information until it had substantiated the exact status of the miners.
If Hatfield appeared central to the PR efforts during the rescue, it may be because he is the PR effort. The company has no PR contacts listed on its website, and as of last week, the only contacts listed in a statement posted on the site were Hatfield and chairman Wilbur Ross.
"Three hours to correct bad information in an instantaneous media environment is just not acceptable today," said Jeff Braun, VP and GM of The Ammerman Experience, a Houston-based firm. He said executives should have told families immediately that the news might be wrong. "That would have caused the media and family members to hesitate, which would have been the best case."
The company did not return a phone call for comment at press time.
PR pros praised Hatfield's efforts during the crisis - until the last few hours. The botched communications in the final stages of the ordeal will further hurt the company's reputation, "wrecking any good that came from the mining company's CEO, who had appeared to be very credible and honest in media coverage," said Rory O'Connor, VP at Fleishman-Hillard, San Francisco.
Federal regulators "now will turn up the heat because of the 'miscommunication' - the feds have already said as much," O'Connor said.
Lawsuits also are likely on the horizon, O'Connor added, "not just for the deaths and the possible safety violations behind them, but for the emotional suffering caused by the false news of a rescue."