As a communications professional, I am appalled at Massey Energy's decision to communicate about the tragedy at the Upper Big Branch mine with the victims' families, its employees and the West Virginia community through generic statements posted on the company's Web site. Moreover, as a human being, I could not be more disappointed by Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship's lack of compassion for the "members" of Massey Energy and their loved ones. No crisis communications plan can trump genuine compassion for the well-being of your employees and their families.
Blankenship chose to grant one interview to the Associated Press -- that's it. And when he was asked about derogatory comments directed to him at a local town hall-style meeting with the families and friends of the victims, his response demonstrated little in the way of empathy or accountability: "They're looking for some way to release their anger and that's just the way it is." He should have said something like "we will continue to listen to and address the concerns and feedback from our employees, their families and the community. However, our number one priority at the moment is to do all we can to locate and rescue the unaccounted-for miners and provide support to those families that have lost their loved ones in this tragedy."
Blankenship is no stranger to controversy or crisis and has taken proactive steps in the past to strengthen his public image in the community. Blankenship invested tremendous time and money to earn support from his employees and the community when he was planning to implement company changes in the wake of his ascendance to the CEO position. But where is he now that they need him? As a community leader and the face of Massey Energy, Blankenship should be more visible and accountable.
Considering the ongoing safety deficiencies and violations at the Upper Big Branch mine, Blankenship should have known this day might come and prepared himself and his team for it. This is not the first time the company has had blood on its hands (two Massey miners died in a fire in 2006), and we all know and generally accept that mining is a dangerous business. Using the company Web site as the primary communications channel during a time of crisis is a shield -- not a strategy -- and waiting more than five hours to issue a comment when employees and community members were in misery is inexcusable.
A company's true mettle is tested in a time of crisis, and Blankenship needs to be more visible, more humble and more concerned about the individuals who make his company successful. Instead, officials from the U.S. Mine Safety and Health Administration, the governor of West Virginia, safety advocates and local politicians have taken control of the story and have filled the vacuum of communications and corporate leadership with third-party commentary. Ultimately, he squandered an opportunity to earn the respect of his employees and the community by standing with them during this time of uncertainty.