When “It” Hits the Fan: Effective Crisis Communication for the Chemical Industry

Williams ExplosionBy Gerard Braud –

It’s an honor to be invited to deliver the morning keynote presentation today to the Chemistry Council of New Jersey at their 2015 Conference. You can view today’s handout here.

The crisis communications lessons being discussed on stage serve as a reminder to everyone in the C-Suite, in emergency response, and in public relations, that news travels fast. The faster the news travels, the faster a corporation must respond. Smart phone technology and social media are changing the rules for both corporations and the media.

Now is also a good time to compare your traditional approach to crisis communications with what should be your new normal. The emphasis in that sentence is the word NEW combined with NORMAL.Williams FB page

What got ‘ya here won’t get ‘ya there could be the best advice I can share. Yet many industries have traditionally failed to successfully get to the old normal, much less embrace the new normal.

Traditionally, many chemical and heavy manufacturing companies operate without a public relations employee or team. Some have one public relations person while others have several. It really depends upon the size of the  geismarcompany. But regardless of the whether you have a public relations staff or not, corporate crisis communications often takes a back seat to emergency response. Furthermore, news releases are often delayed by executives who excessively scrutinize each word and comma. Sometimes delays are caused by lawyers who oppose the concept of the news release.

Many chemical companies also make the mistake of delegating all of their crisis communications to law enforcement, following the guidelines of the National Incident Management System (NIMS). While police can be effective in communicating precautions or evacuations from a chemical crisis, the flaw with NIMS is that law enforcement spokespeople are not able to communicate empathy on behalf of the company.

The most frightening case study I’ve observed regarding the chemical industry, involves the media, social media, and crisis communications.  On the morning of June 13, 2013 there was a tragic explosion and fire at the Williams Olefins Chemical plant in Geismar, LA, about 50 miles from my home, which killed 2 workers and injured more than 100. Before the company had a single news release issued, or before they provided any images or videos posted to the web, someone published a Facebook page with more details than the chemical company ever gave.

My research indicates it took nearly three hours for the company to put up an official news release on their website. The goal I would ask any corporation to aim for is to have an official news release on your website within one hour or less.

One hour is a reasonable goal if you recognize that you don’t have to know everything or state all of the facts in your initial release. It is perfectly acceptable for you to publish a few facts at a time as you get them. That is why in my presentation today I strongly recommended that people use my first critical statement as a fast alternative to writing a formal press release. To get a free download use the coupon code CRISISCOMPLAN when you select the item from my shopping cart.

Industry leaders and executives should keep in mind that eye witnesses to an event are posting images, rumors or details to social media as soon as a crisis happens. This means that your one hour news release may still be 59 minutes behind the first eyewitness account. However, it is much better than a three hour delay as seen in the case study above.

Don’t let a similar situation be your demise.

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