Friday, May 28, 2010
Weatherford International provides products and services to oil and gas developments. According to its web site, it employs 40,000 people in 100 countries. In a company that size and in that line of business, I'm sure it has dealt with its share of crises and should know the drill by now when something goes wrong. On May 27, its Leetsdale plant, just outside of Pittsburgh, experienced a runaway reaction of ammonium persulfate. Here is what the company had to say:
“Weatherford International Ltd. confirmed that an unplanned reaction involving ammonium persulfate has occurred at its Leetsdale Industrial Park facility. The reaction occurred during a mixing process, causing a vapor release.
“Weatherford’s emergency response team was immediately advised of the incident and has worked with local authorities to secure the release. As a precautionary measure, the Leetsdale complex also was evacuated, per emergency procedures. No major injuries were reported.
“As of now (Thursday afternoon), the reaction appears to have ceased, and emergency responders are evaluating conditions to begin the clean up process.” (http://www.timesonline.com/bct_news/news_details/article/1373/2010/may/27/leetsdale-chemical-spill-leaves-worker-burned.html)
Doesn't sound too serious, does it? Here's the whole story, according to the Beaver County Times. A large white cloud poured from the Weatherford building, forcing Weatherford employees and 500 others to leave the site. A nearby high school was told to shelter in place. One employee was treated for burns at the hospital, even though the company claimed there were no injuries. Ammonium persulfate (Just the two elements would be a cause for concern) causes burns on contact and respiratory problems if inhaled.
The news article makes the emergency sound more serious than does the company release. As a former chemical industry person, I am fully aware that people who work with those materials tend to become more casual about them. Also, emergency responders err on the side of safety and usually take precautions later deemed unnecessary. I'm glad they do. But this company shut down the entire complex and forced employees to evacuate, it locked down a school, and it saw one of its employees rushed to the hospital. Where is the human element in the company's response? Where are the regrets for disrupting the day for 500 people? Where is the appreciation for the fire department and two hazardous materials teams? Where does it say the company will work with the authorities to investigate the cause and make any necessary changes before restarting?
Don't forget the passion when you write or speak to key audiences. Let them know you are human and you care. You should show that you respect your audience as people. In the next days or weeks, watch for company statements during and after crises, including BP. See if the I'm-sorry-we-care approach makes you feel more confident in the organization than the just-the-facts-ma'am strategy.
Tuesday, May 25, 2010
The Massey web site (http://www.masseyenergyco.com/) contains links to "Upper Big Branch Accident Information," including "Message to families who lost loved ones," and a tab for "accident information." One can easily find news releases from the home page. However, my criticism in my previous Massey post -- that actions have to match the words -- still is an issue. That is, if you believe the coal miners who testified before the U.S. House Education and Labor Committee.
Massey's safety policy is posted on the web site. It says in part, "(Employees) embrace the company's commitment to safety.... S-1 (Safety First) instills a culture of safety through a well-developed process of training, mentoring, monitoring, and recognition of safety excellence....
"Every Massey member - from executive to miner - takes direct responsibility for safety. Massey's process for safety evaluations provides each Massey member with an active voice in developing, improving and maintaining our safety programs."
Really? Tim Huber, Associate Press, covered the committee hearing. "Massey used codes to warn workers when regulators showed up, said Gary Quarles, whose son Gary Wayne Quarles died in the explosion. (http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/05/25/MNFI1DJTBF.DTL&feed=rss.news#ixzz0oyBiuO10)
"'When an MSHA inspector comes onto a Massey mine property, the code words go out, 'we've got a man on the property,' Quarles testified. "Those words are radioed from the guard gates and relayed to all working operations in the mine.'
"After that, workers are expected to do everything possible to quickly correct problems or divert the inspectors' attention from any issues, Quarles said. The witnesses also described illegal ventilation changes, methane gas fireballs, and thick accumulations of combustible coal dust."
Warning of an inspection violates civil coal mining laws. "MSHA chief Joe Main told The Associated Press... whether it's a crime as well is under consideration and may be looked into by other federal agencies."
Massey issued a news release following hearings led by Senator Tom Haskins on May 20 (http://phx.corporate-ir.net/phoenix.zhtml?c=102864&p=irol-newsArticle&ID=1429704&highlight=). In it, Massey tries to shift the blame. Don Blankenship, President and CEO, is quoted in the release as saying, "'As we have said previously, prior to the accident MSHA effectively ordered us to change our ventilation plan by rejecting the plans we submitted. Only by adopting a ventilation plan with changes we did not like, but that were effectively required by MSHA, were we able to proceed with mining operations at Upper Big Branch.'"
Equally defensive was a May 13 letter under Blankenship's signature that said, "The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) gave inaccurate statements to the media on the critical issue of using dust scrubbers to clean the air of dust particles. I am asking the agency to retract their statements." There's another demand for retractions, but you get the idea.
Who is this Donald Blankenship? Oh, he has quite a history! Check out this video of an ABC Nightline aired two years ago. It is well worth it. If you don't have time for all 9 minutes, watch at least the first couple. Please note: Never, never, never threaten to shoot a reporter, as Blankenship does here.
There can't be any symbol of hatred greater than the Ku Klux Klan. That's why a teacher, Catherine Ariemma at Lumpkin County High School in Dahlonega, Georgia, had students dress in KKK robes to make a video to show what racial hatred is like. Good idea but bad execution. She didn't tell others in the school about the video and the purpose. Four kids walked into the cafeteria still dressed in their robes. From what I read, many of the students took offense -- and rightly so. The students immediately removed their costumes and felt badly they had offended fellow students. (http://www.aolnews.com/nation/article/students-kkk-robes-part-of-racism-lesson-shock-georgia-high-school/19490279).
Ariemma was placed on leave and might be fired. She didn't think the project through very well. She should have; she is a six-year, award-winning teacher. A lesson to the wise: It never hurts to bounce ideas off people whose judgement you trust. You might be missing something that they will catch.
After the initial uproar died down, the school and community took a wise approach. Ara Gay wrote in AOL News, "In the small town of Dahlonega (90% white), the incident has sparked a spirited debate over how to deal with a painful and charged topic that continues to haunt the community. But it has raised a larger question as well: How do we best teach and talk about racism in the United States?... According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Ariemma asked superintendent Moye 'if there was some way we could turn this into a teachable moment.'
"The Rev. Markel Hutchins, a Georgia minister and civil rights activist, seems to think it possible. Monday evening he met with black students in Dahlonega to address their fears and and pray with them. 'When we leave this issue, we want to leave this town a better place,' he said. 'It seems to me that in many places around the country, we're not divided as much as [we are] disconnected.' Rev. Hutchins sounds like a smart man to me.
It appears from this distance that school officials, Ariemma, and community leaders are defusing a tense situation by doing and saying the right things. Ignoring the situation (although maybe they did at first, I can't tell from news reports) would probably have led to irate parents chewing out the principal, the superintendent, and Ariemma if they could find her. It could have even spilled out into the community. That happened while I was in high school. This looks like a smoldering crisis that was dealt with quite nicely.
Monday, May 24, 2010
My friend Susan's blog makes a good point. No matter how good the communications are, the company's image depends on how it deals with the catastrophe (http://vestadvertising.com/blog/?p=926). She writes, "No amount of crisis communication can paint lipstick on this pig. Crisis communications only works when decisive, correct actions are taken, responsibility is exercised, and the light can be seen at the end of the tunnel."
Susan is exactly right. At the Institute for Crisis Management, we preach that point repeatedly. Management has to do "the right thing." No one can communicate an organization out of a crisis if management is making bad decisions. I don't know if BP is making bad decisions. Washington has to be critical publicly for political reasons. Only the techie engineers can make the call as to whether the criticism is warranted. But BP certainly isn't shying away from making information available. I give credit to the Communications Department -- and the Legal Department -- to keep us all informed.
Thursday, May 20, 2010
"Angered over Massey's flawed safety record, CtW Investment Group, a shareholder with voting rights, has called for Blankenship's resignation and is now seeking a management shakeup by urging the removal of three Massey directors.
"'In our view, Massey's alarming record of non-compliance ultimately reflects the board's fundamental inability to exercise independent oversight of Donald Blankenship, a domineering Chairman and CEO who fosters a reckless, 'production first' culture and takes a confrontational approach to regulators, shareholders and workers," CtW wrote in a letter to shareholders. ("http://www.swamppolitics.com/news/politics/blog/2010/05/bad_week_ahead_for_massey_ceo_1.html)
Blankenship, at this writing, remains in place as CEO. Here's a smoldering crisis ready to erupt. Sometimes, a board decision is hard to make. But we as communicators of such organizations need to be prepared for the worst. Sometimes, our bosses are our own worst enemies. Our crisis plans need to take that fact into account.
Detroit Police, when attempting a drug raid, accidentally shot a seven-year-old girl who was asleep on a couch. (http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-504083_162-20005130-504083.html) "According to Assistant Chief Ralph Godbee, the Detroit police barged into the home with their guns drawn searching for a homicide suspect that was involved in the slaying of a 17-year-old boy. One of the officers was allegedly involved in a scuffle with a woman inside the home when the gun went off and fatally struck the sleeping child in the neck. Chief Godbee believes the gun was not fired intentionally, but Wayne County Prosecutor Kym Worthy said bringing in the state police to investigate the killing would avoid any appearance of a conflict of interest."
We will see how good of a crisis plan the city of Detroit has, and specifically the police department (because if there's a backlash, the city will hang the police chief out to dry). If anyone harms an innocent child, that's a crisis, no matter what the definition of a crisis is.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
In October 2008, I blogged about Western Kentucky University and how it was criticized for an overblown warning about a gunman on campus, which turned out to be false. I wrote then, "Western Kentucky University President Gary Ransdell sent an e-mail message to parents the next day. 'We ... live in times where it is difficult to control exaggerated information. We will always take steps to communicate and then sort through what is fact and what is not fact in each situation.'" (http://crisisexperts.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2008-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-05%3A00&updated-max=2009-01-01T00%3A00%3A00-05%3A00&max-results=50)
That seems like a reasonable policy, even though a "mother hen" publicly took WKU to task for causing her to drive an hour for nothing to make sure her baby was okay.
"The report is the latest to criticize the school's response to the killings of 33 people, including the student gunman, on April 16, 2007. The school could be fined up to $55,000...but no one will face criminal charges, according to the Tech official who drafted the response.... Tech also still faces a $10 million civil suit by the families of two slain students. Families of most of the other victims shared in an $11 million state settlement." (http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20100519/ap_on_re_us/us_virginia_tech_shootings)
If a jealous husband in your neighborhood shoots his wife and her lover, would you personally feel threatened? The Department of Education is covering its political fanny by blaming and fining Virginia Tech for taking an action -- or inaction -- that most of us would have taken too.
As a P.S.: I got to talk to Larry on the phone a few months after the shootings. He said the crisis plan in place worked pretty well, but it didn't anticipate the size of the crisis and the swarm of reporters from around the world. But at least he had a plan to work from. Do you?
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
A child at the St. Paul Zoo wasn't as lucky. "According to witness accounts, a man who appeared to be a father lifted a 2- to 5-year-old boy over a railing toward the cougar exhibit. One of the animals 'pushed through the mesh' fencing and scratched the boy before the man could pull the child away, said zoo spokesman Matt Reinartz." (http://www.startribune.com/local/94103844.html?elr=KArks:DCiUtEia_nDaycUiacyKU7DYaGEP7vDEh7P:DiUs)
The lesson here is clearly don't be stupid around animals that can hurt you. But if you are a zoo or other keeper of potentially dangerous animals, you need to know what you will say, who are your key stakeholders (donors, for goodness sake), and what are your communications priorities to protect you from stupid people doing stupid things.
My wife works in the Louisville Zoo gift shop and apprehended a shoplifter a couple weeks ago. If you operate a zoo or a museum or an amusement park, what is your policy in case someone tries to steal from your facility? What kind of training do you provide? If you have no policy and no training, you better have a doggone good crisis communications plan. You'll need it. (Actually, you'll need it regardless.) Reduce the risk and liability, then be prepared to deal with the shoplifter who pulls a knife on your employee or the father who lets his son stand next to a cougar cage. You need to be ready to communicate because you don't have control over everything that might go wrong. "It won't happen on my watch" is no crisis communications plan.
The Minneapolis Star-Tribune last week reported that Stonemill Falls in Woodbury, with its $300,000 to $500,000 homes, is fighting a plan to turn a nearby empty retail site into housing for people with Alzheimer's or dementia. The reason: "Nearly everyone who spoke against the facility had concerns that their children might be attacked or see an elderly adult do something inappropriate." (http://www.startribune.com/local/east/92145794.html?elr=KArksUUUoDEy3LGDiO7aiU)
One of my favorite aunts has dementia and my cousins had to put her in a home because she couldn't take care of herself. But she does love to attack children! My sister's mother-in-law died of Alzheimer's not long ago. Sure, she loved to go out in the parking lot and flash passing motorists! Come on, people. Many of you will suffer from the same affliction some day.
Before I paint the good people of Woodbury as being narrow-minded fools, the Star-Tribune reports, "(Joe)Baumann (potential developer of the site) said the city of Woodbury continues to support the facility, and he believes the majority of Stonemill residents do, too, but they aren't the ones who show up for meetings. He said most of the critics have concerns about the 'enhanced memory care' patients, some of whom can get belligerent or aggressive when they are confused. But they will be in a secure area. 'They are locked in for their protection, not to protect the community,' he said."
If you are in the nursing home business, you are vulnerable to a crisis, even if you've operated from the same site for years. People will fight youth detention facilities, nursing homes, and housing for the poor. The majority, who support your cause, often remain silent. But a few Nervous Nellies will fight you at every opportunity. When I'm ready for "the home," I just hope it's in a neighborhood that doesn't see my senility as a threat to children. You need a crisis plan in the event neighbors do. You also need a plan that guides you if your facility faces other crises, such as accusations of abuse or neglect.
Thursday, May 13, 2010
http://www.bp.com/bodycopyarticle.do?categoryId=1&contentId=7052055. There you will find up-to-date briefings almost daily on efforts to clean up the mess and stop the leak. Photos of the effort change every five seconds or so. Also, you will find a list of phone numbers that various stakeholders can call. The site also promotes Twitter updates at Oil_Spill_2010 and on Facebook at Deepwater Horizon Response. Reporters can find which communicators to contact at http://www.bp.com/sectiongenericarticle.do?categoryId=9002067&contentId=7058356. Deepwater Horizon, which operated the well, also has an informative website it keeps up to date.(http://www.deepwaterhorizon response.com/go/site/2931/)
Say what you will about BP and Deepwater Horizon's lack of diligence to prevent a spill -- and many are critical, and many more will be. But I am having trouble finding much to criticize about BP's communications lately.
Friday, May 7, 2010
The Institute for Crisis Management identifies five stages of a crisis:
1. Denial -- It can’t be that bad.
2. Containment -- Make it disappear/assign to someone else to solve.
3. Self defense/blame game -- Assign blame/take credit
4. Blood on the floor -- Someone pays with his/her job.
5. Fixed -- Life goes on, sometimes for the better.
If you'll remember, in the first days after the gulf oil platform fire, only 1,000 barrels of oil a day were leaking according to reports, and everything was under control. That was the denial stage. I would say we are now somewhere between stages 2 and 3: containment and blame. That's why the White House, the Interior Department, the Coast Guard, fishermen/shrimpers, and anyone else involved are pointing fingers at BP. All are beating up on a company that is acting responsibly and accepting responsibility so they have a scapegoat. The government doesn't want a repeat of its perceived failure to act responsibly following Hurricane Katrina. Blaming BP also means officials and lawyers have someone they can send bills to and sue.
About 200 attorneys met in New Orleans on May 6 to come up with a strategy to combine all civil suits against BP to get quicker settlements (http://www.bloomberg.com/apps/news?pid=20601109&sid=a94k.gB66rOg&pos=15). "Also named as defendants in most of the suits are: Transocean Ltd., which owned the rig; Cameron International Corp., which supplied the blowout prevention equipment on the well; and Halliburton Energy Services Inc., which was providing cementing services to the well. None of the companies has accepted liability for the accident." But BP has accepted liability for cleanup. How many times do you hear those other defendants mentioned? No, BP is the fall guy.
The insurance companies also come out as big losers but remain out of the public's view: "The sunken Deepwater Horizon oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico will lead to the biggest energy insurance losses in more than 20 years, Catlin Group Ltd. said.... Claims from Deepwater Horizon, which was under contract to BP Plc when the blast occurred, may reach $1.6 billion, according to JPMorgan Chase & Co. analyst Michael Huttner.... Transocean Ltd., the world’s largest offshore oil driller, said yesterday it has collected $481 million from a $560 million insurance policy." (http://www.businessweek.com/news/2010-05-07/bp-spill-biggest-energy-insurance-loss-in-20-years-correct-.html)
Compare the response of BP to the response of Exxon following the Valdez oil spill. They are worlds apart. BP, although being criticized by officials from all corners, is in better shape so far than Exxon was when it was so slow to progress from the denial stage, #1 above. The lesson to take away here is this: No matter how well you handle a crisis, you may still have your critics, and politicians will take advantage of your situation to advance their agendas or to wash their hands of your problem and assign blame. The key for all of us is to act responsibly and communicate with stakeholders quickly and clearly so that when the crisis goes away, we can quickly return to business as usual. You may remember how long it took Exxon to rebound from Valdez.
Keep your eye on the oil spill story and see how this crisis moves through stages 4 and 5. For another perspective of BP's handling of the oil mess, visit http://www.linkedin.com/shareviewLink=&sid=g37040-19428176&url=http%3A%2F%2Flnkd%2Ein%2FXzurPg&urlhash=p--k&uid=581fb93d-2dc0-4761-ae79-578237083401&trk=NUS_UNIU_SHARE-title.
Thursday, May 6, 2010
I wanted to see if its website had any updates or statements. I clicked on the news tab. The last news release listed was May 25, 2005 (http://www.agerefining.com/new/au4.shtml). So of course there was nothing about the fire, condition of the victim, or how long the plant might be shut down.
Reporters can find out a lot about a company with a few simple key strokes, then let us connect the dots, fairly or not: "AGE Refinery was fined 13 times in 2008 by OSHA for safety violations. One violation focused on vehicles passing near processing equipment, increasing the risk of a fire. The fines for those violations topped $25,000." (http://www.woai.com/news/local/story/Investigation-underway-into-cause-of-refinery/vxOCAt2Fa0OV1hcZP6hOhg.cspx)
AGE has done some things right. Early on, "AGE marketing director Jeff Dorrow confirmed a truck exploded at the refinery that handles about 14,000 barrels per day, but had no other details." (http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/sns-ap-us-refinery-fire,0,3898997.story) All right, it's okay to say "I don't know," and Dorrow didn't speculate. I can't find any later updates, but I can't find much reporter interest the following day, so I can't be critical of Dorrow for not following up with reporters. The fire, fortunately for AGE, quickly became yesterday's news.
The CEO released an appropriately brief statement: "'We are grateful at this time that no fatalities occurred. We are working in cooperation with local fire and police officials and appreciate their service during this critical time.'" There probably isn't anything more he could have or should have said. (http://www.ksat.com/news/23461833/detail.html)
AGE is a company in crisis, a crisis that may finish it off, given the bankruptcy. I hope it is in contact with those evacuated neighbors and its shareholders, employees, suppliers, customers, and other stakeholders. Otherwise, if they rely on AGE's website, they'll be relieved to know "AGE Refining begins blending B20 for Southwest Texas markets" on May 25, 2005.
Wednesday, May 5, 2010
As state budgets shrivel and state schools try to maintain the same level of services, including sports, I expect we will see more of this kind of thing, which strikes me as extortion. I don't know any more than what I read on the above-referenced website, but why pick on wrestling and gymnastics? And nearly a half million dollars to keep those programs afloat? It sounds like a lot. If you're involved with any state-funded university, you better have a plan for how you will communicate when programs are threatened. Will you communicate with key stakeholders who may be sympathetic? And who are those key stakeholders: benefactors, former athletes, state politicians, community members?
I'm suggesting that if you aren't ready to answer questions and help threatened university programs, you should be.
Tuesday, May 4, 2010
But I don't feel good about Insight's communications effort. Until I compared notes with others, I didn't know if the problem was in my lines, my HDTV box, or with Insight's system. I checked the Insight website. No information there. I waited a few hours before sending an e-mail message via the website. I never did receive a response. So I called several times. "All circuits are busy. Please try your call later."
That isn't satisfactory to people who had to miss Regis and Kelly this morning. Someone in the media did get through to Insight, as a spokesperson was quoted on a website I found after the fact (http://www.entertainmentandshowbiz.com/insight-cable-louisville-the-glitch-will-be-settled-%E2%80%9Cin-a-few-hours%E2%80%9D-2010050449646). "Jason Keller, Louisville-based director of public affairs for New York City-based Insight, has said that the problem was caused overnight, though he could not say what time. They have detected the problem only this morning. 'We have found the problem, and we’re working diligently to have services up and running soon,' Keller said."
But I see no effort at mass communications directed towards the hundreds of thousands of affected customers. And does no one at Insight watch late night TV? The company didn't know it had a problem until this morning? Insight needs to do a better job of watching its own cable signals and communicating when something goes bump -- or freeze -- in the night.