Monday, April 19, 2010

Talking Safety in the Shadow of Death

One of the most difficult challenges in crisis communications is talking about your company's safety record in the aftermath of an accident.

Here is how it plays out:  Your company has an accident and employees lose their lives. Reporters will show up and start asking questions about the accident. These questions are uncomfortable; no one likes talking about these things. At some point, usually later in the interview, a reporter asks you about your safety record.

I've seen this question cause great relief for spokespeople for two reasons. First, it's a question that has nothing to do with the accident, and second it gives them a chance to talk about something positive.

Except it never really works out that way. Public relations is not a zero sum game. Your safety record cannot be separated from the accident and no matter how good your safety record is, it doesn't matter to the families of the people who died.

The massive blast that killed 29 people at Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine was the worst coal mine disaster in the US in 40 years. As the rescue and recovery operations unfolded on live television, Massey leadership talked a lot about the safety record at the Upper Big Branch (UBB) Mine.

Here are some of the company's quotes:
  • Since January 2009, UBB has had less than one violation per day of inspection by MSHA, a rate consistent with national averages. Most of the citations issued by MSHA to UBB in the last year were resolved on the same day they were issued.  (Massey Energy Statement, Apr 9, 2010)
  • Massey continues to invest in the development of safety innovations that exceed industry and regulatory standards. Our lost-time incident rate has been better than the industry average for 17 of the past 19 years and has been improving significantly.  These improvements have been achieved through concerted effort and significant investment. (Massey Energy Statement, Apr 9, 2010)
  • The company boasts on its Web site that it has a good safety record compared with the rest of the industry. "In 2009, Massey recorded an all-time best NFDL incident rate (a measure of lost-time accidents) of 1.67," the site says. "This is an improvement over last year's rate of 1.93, our previous best result. By comparison, the bituminous coal mining industry average NFDL rate was 2.95 in 2008. 2009 marked the 6th consecutive year and the 17th year out of the past 20 years in which Massey's safety performance was stronger than the industry average." (The Washington Post, April 6, 2010)
I have two problems with these kinds of statistics. First there are always others that have their own statistics. They are happy to share them with reporters and most likely they don't own a business where more than two dozen people got killed. Second, talking about your safety record diverts you from your prime obligation during a crisis of this kind: to take care of the families of those that lost their lives.

Let's say your safety record is pristine (unlike the record at the Upper Big Branch Mine). Even then, the bad news isn't cancelled out by that good news. The people are still dead.

So what can you do?

1) Defer talking about your safety record to another time. "Our safety record is a matter of public record and we'll talk about it at a more appropriate time. Our primary concern now is for the families of those injured and killed and for all of our workers involved in this terrible accident."

2) Tell reporters you aren't comfortable talking about your safety record when people are grieving.  "I know you are all interested in our safety record and we'll provide that data to you. Our safety record is of little consolation to those that have been impacted by this accident. What we are focusing on now is caring for those injured and providing support to those who are grieving after this terrible tragedy."

3) Focus reporters on your actions. We recognize our safety record will be an important part of the investigation into this accident. The most important thing we can do right now is take care of the people who are grieving, and ensure the best possible care for those injured. To that end, we are...

Is this a fool-proof method? Not even close. But, since all journalism is about how events impact people it aligns the company with the stories that will be written and broadcast and it does so in a less impersonal way than simply rattling off a bunch of numbers.

I know companies have to defend themselves, but there are better ways to do that than most do now.

I worked at one company where accidents killed five workers over 18 months. An investigative reporter interviewed the head of the company's safety program and kept asking him about the facility's safety stats. The safety guy refused to answer and tried to steer the journalist to other safety- related topics. .

The reporter asked why the safety guy wouldn't talk about the company's safety record.  A three-word response ended the interview.

"Statistics don't bleed."

Bill Salvin

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