In the aftermath of the major communications failure at the Sago mine, Mark Hand explores what went wrong and how it could have been prevented
Shortly before midnight, the governor, who had been keeping vigil during the entire ordeal, announced to anxious relatives and the huge media contingent that the trapped coal miners had been found. The celebrations could begin because the rescue team had confirmed all of the miners were alive and safe.
That scenario played out in July 2002 at the Quecreek Mine in Pennsylvania, where nine coal miners were pulled to safety from 240 feet underground. Gov. Mark Schweiker, who had served as the primary spokesman during the rescue effort, conveyed the good news.
"It's an incredible development, an amazing development," a relieved Schweiker told the gathered news media.
Fast-forward three-and-a-half years, and you have almost identical circumstances at the Sago Mine in West Virginia, where family members and a throng of reporters received word from Gov. Joe Manchin a few minutes before midnight on January 3 that all but one of the 13 trapped miners had survived. Unlike at Quecreek, however, the communications system at the Sago mine ultimately failed.
The initial word conveyed to family members and the media was incorrect. Compounding the tragedy was the fact that officials with International Coal Group (ICG), owner of the Sago mine, took more than two hours to correct the miscommunication. As it turned out, all but one of the trapped miners had died.
Who's to blame
"For any type of company in this industry, the number one disaster, I guarantee you, is a mining accident," says Ed Moed, cofounder and managing partner of Peppercom. "There is no excuse for a company not to be prepared for all things you have to do around a mining accident."
Peppercom's client roster contains many big names in the energy industry, including companies active in the coal industry. The firm has helped coal companies go through simulations where they prepare communications systems for a disaster.
"A lot of what we do is exactly what this company should have gone through, which is a real-life simulation," Moed says. "I question whether this company actually did test its communications."
ICG, whose primary investor is New York billionaire Wilbur Ross, assumed operational control of the Sago mine in November. "I think you had, on the one hand, an understandably imperfect and ad hoc communications process set up in the midst of a crisis by a company that was just only formed in November," says Luke Popovich, VP of external communications for the National Mining Association (NMA). "And you had a process that was literally ad hoc by the nature of these kinds of things because a company like this certainly would not be top-heavy with communications expertise."
In the aftermath of the tragedy, ICG opted to retain Cleveland-based Dix & Eaton to handle media inquiries and PR. ICG had no PR representation until hiring that firm.
Scott Chaikin, CEO of D&E, says that although the agency got the nod to field media inquiries on the mine disaster, the firm had been hired in November to handle investor relations when ICG went public.
"We had worked with International Steel Group, another Wilbur Ross property," notes Chaikin. "But we also specialize on the crisis side." For ICG, the agency will focus on improving "the flow of information."
"They don't have huge staff there, and they have obviously very important and highly sensitive things they have to spend time on," Chaikin says.
ICG President and CEO Ben Hatfield served as the primary spokesman for the company during the rescue efforts. Before hiring D&E, the company had no communications contacts listed on its website aside from Hatfield and Ross.
Most small- and medium-sized coal companies typically do not have communications professionals at each mining location. Instead, a small PR operation might be located at the company's headquarters.
"That's smart to bring professionals aboard," Moed says. "They probably didn't have much of a reason beforehand. This industry doesn't do much of a proactive outreach, but it's definitely needed at this point."
Popovich points out that several entities, including state and federal government officials, had converged at the staging ground near the Sago mine to help with the rescue efforts.
"It wasn't entirely as if it was the company's show alone," he says. "Through no fault of their own, these people were struggling to come to terms with the crisis at hand, let alone deal with the inundation of local media and then, very quickly, national news media. Then you had public officials who were part of an ad hoc communications team with the company."
Jeff Braun, VP and GM of The Ammerman Experience, says his firm looks for gaps in a company's crisis-response structure. Typically, he says, companies are weakest in rumor management and human services response.
"The information coming out of the command center was misconstrued, and then it took on a life of its own," Braun notes. "And who at the company has been trained to sit there with those families as they await word, and what is the relationship there?"
Popovich believes the rumor was sparked in the tinder of hope, with everyone at the site imagining the best possible outcome. Popovich remembers that when the governor was asked by a reporter why he did not question the source of the good news before speaking with family members, he responded, "I wanted to believe in a miracle."
NMA received more than 150 media calls during the Sago mine rescue operation and its immediate aftermath, many of which were conversations with reporters from print media outlets. "We did more extensive interviews on television trying to establish a single message, which was, 'Let's try to find the facts before we find the fault,'" Popovich notes.
The media rushed to judgment on the accident, blaming the company and lax regulation before it knew the facts, contends Popovich. "They wanted heads on pikes before we had determined if there was any fault, let alone where to apportion fault or blame," he says.
Whatever the outcome of inquiries into the accident, ICG's image already has been battered by how it handled communications in the final hours of the ordeal. The communications gaffe "exponentially increases how this company looks in the eyes of its public," Moed says.
NMA holds regular discussions with its member companies about communications strategies. Last summer, an official with Consol Energy, one of the nation's largest coal companies, gave a presentation to NMA's communications committee on how it handled communications during the rescue efforts at the Quecreek mine in Pennsylvania. Consol, which doesn't own Quecreek (PBS Coals does), provided a rescue team to help in search and rescue. Consol gained inside knowledge of how communications were handled during the rescue.
"One of the lessons was how difficult it is to secure the site so that rescuers can go about their business, and how you keep the news media at arm's length so you can let these people do their work," Popovich says.
Consol provided an analysis of how the Quecreek accident happened and how communications played out over the course of the rescue efforts. "The presentation impressed everyone by its thoroughness," he says.
The presentation also demonstrated that no two crisis situations are the same. "You can prepare a communications plan. You can anticipate certain concerns you must address. But you cannot do that with any precision," Popovich explains.
Moed agrees that every crisis is different. "But if you test your plan, if you test the processes of the crisis management team, if you test how well they communicate, you're always going to have issues come up that you never thought about," he says. "You can make those changes and you feel more comfortable."