On 9 January 2014, Freedom Industries, Inc., a chemical plant near Charleston, West Virginia had a leak, which contaminated the water for over 300,000 people. Citizens were told not to use the water in any fashion. Numerous people have fallen ill with stomach ailments and rashes. It is estimated that 7,500 gallons of the industrial chemical 4-methylcyclohexane methanol, known as MCHM, leaked from a one-inch hole breaching the containment wall and seeped into the Elk River.
The crisis started on Thursday morning around 7am when people living by the chemical plant started smelling an odd odor. At 10:30am, employees at plant discover one of the tanks is leaking. By 11:05am, after receiving numerous calls from neighbors of the chemical plant inspectors of the state department of environmental protection arrived at Freedom Industries on the bank of the Elk River to investigate the smell. At 12:05pm, finally the company makes the call to the spill hotline to report the leak. In the meantime unknown quantities of a chemical leaked into the river when the chemical plant is located on. The plant is upstream from a water treatment plant. Within five hours of the call, an immediate ban on using water in surrounding communities of the chemical plant was ordered. Freedom Industries was ordered to cease operations.
The next day Gary Southern, the president and co-founder of company, held a brief press conference (see below.) Details were not forth-coming and people were left with more questions than answers adding to community confusion and mounting fear regarding their safety.
Frustrations mounted. Citizens, groups, and governmental agencies soon railed against the company. Probes and criminal investigations have been mounted and lawsuits filed. The company continues to do very little to communicate.
Communication is key in a crisis of this magnitude.
This is both an environmental and health crisis. Getting the correct facts and instructions out to the public as efficiently as possible is important. Health and safety of the community is paramount.
How you react in the “Golden Hour” as the crisis unfolds sets the tone.
While most businesses will never face a crisis of the magnitude of a chemical spill, preparation is key for any crisis. And the more you are prepared, the better you are able to set the tone managing the conversation when a crisis hits. The initial communications such as the press briefing, updates on the website, or messages sent out via social media are critical.
How do you set the tone?
You build trust and credibility by communicating:
• Empathy and caring (acknowledge people’s fears)
• Competence and expertise (explain the process in lay terms)
• Honesty and openness (don’t over reassure)
• Commitment and dedication (tell people how it is going to be resolved)
Often communicators and legal counsel are at odds during a crisis. Legal counsel tries to protect the organization from unnecessary actions. Unknowingly they are hampering efforts to get correct information out and setting a tone of collaboration. It is a smart move for communicators to form a relationship with legal counsel before any crisis happens. Legal counsel should be included in crisis communications planning including the development of any holding statements.
The natural reaction of organizations often is to shutdown and get defensive instead of truly communicating. A crisis of this level, it is so important to communicate in a truthful, meaningful, respectful manner. It is OK not to have the answers due to the situation being so fluid, but it is not OK to say nothing or start the blame game.
Don’t be the next Freedom Industries.
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TIME CRUNCH? Are you putting your crisis communications plan together and need help? Or are currently dealing with a crisis and need crisis communications assistance? Get help NOW. Contact Ann Marie at firstname.lastname@example.org or +1 302.563.0992 today.