Thursday, January 19, 2006

Lessons about crises from the Sago Mine

The incident at the Sago Mine in West Virginia holds many lessons, but one that stood out to me is the lessons business owners can learn about crisis management.

The mine owners' experience is a lesson in how NOT to manage the scene. The most crucial lesson here is, of course, "Manage the message."

Whenever something 'bad' happens, whether its in a mine or in a corporate conglomerate, it's crucial to manage how the message is given out to the general public, and to the company's "publics" (the ones who deal with the company on a regular basis - basically, their customers, clients and suppliers.)

The message in this horrifying case, was of course the death of most of the miners. But as we all know, word leaked out that they were being pulled out of the mine, and that was quickly mistranslated into: "they have all been saved."

Assigning a clearer spokesman for the company, and ensuring that ALL comments, statements and updates came from that one person at the incident scene, would have likely minimized (if not eliminated) confusion about the miners' status throughout the ordeal.

It was clear watching footage of the disaster that TV crews went to the families for news, not company officials. Those families had received information not from official sources, but from rumors and a misinterpretation of radio chatter on the walkie-talkies and cell phones of rescue workers.

Had a single spokesman been clearly deliniated from the start, the media would have known to question that person and that person alone about the truth of the statements. The families also would have been known to be more skeptical of rumors.

Now, angry families are threatening lawsuits against the company. And while shattering someone's (false) hopes may not be a crime in West Virginia, the mere suggestion of criminal neglect will tarnish the company's image for years.

The lessons of the burst bubble of the Sago mine's "miracles" that night shouldn't be lost on any business, no matter how small. All businesses can write a simple plan that will guide them in a time of crisis, and help them avoid serious and potentially fatal mistakes.

Contact Stephen Abbott for more information on crisis management.