When communicating in a crisis where fatalities are involved, an organization can count on every decision, every statement, and every message to be intensely scrutinized. Every action taken sends a message, so an organization can either a) proactively engage in message development to have some say over messaging or b) allow others to it for them (and “they” will – media, regulators, competitors, etc.)
Massey Mining recently announced the abrupt retirement of CEO Don Blankenship, nearly eight months after the Upper Big Branch Mine disaster.
Blankenship has been widely criticized in the media for his handling of the worst mining disaster in 40 years, and subsequent actions. He was visibly uncomfortable in an interview with Diane Sawyer, presided over company during a number of safety related stories and significant safety issues, and gave a virtual tutorial of what not to do when ambushed by a reporter here, and above. (“If you start taking picture of me, you’re liable to get shot.”
Most recently, Blankenship was the subject of a must-read profile by Rolling Stone’s Jeff Goodell, entitled “Don Blankenship: The Dark Lord of Coal Country.” Roughly a week after the magazine hit the newsstands, Blankenship’s retirement was announced.
A few days after news of Blankenship’s retirement was released, so were details of the retirement package. The retirement package offered to Blankenship included, among other things, $2.7 million upon retirement, millions more in deferred compensation, a free house for life and a salary continuation retirement benefit. A Google news search a few days later found over 200 articles referencing the retirement package with many articles critical of its size and the message it sent.
The reality was that the Board was in a no-win situation and it was not due to the details of package, but instead due to months of media scrutiny long before the package was announced. What this underscores is a fundamental rule in crisis communication – define yourself first, before others handle the task for you.