«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
But the stark truth is that nearly all the accidents could be prevented—saving suffering and improving labor relations.” 20 Six years later, in 1952, President Harry S. Truman signed the Federal Coal Mine Safety Act, but warned it was not a very effective safety measure: “I am advised that the exemptions in the measure were provided to avoid any economic impact on the coal mining industry,” he said. 21 It would take more than two decades before more stringent national mine safety legislation was passed, and it was the direct result of the Farmington, West Virginia, No. 9 coal mine disaster. At the time, more coal was mined and more miners were employed in West Virginia than in any other state. 22 In the early morning hours of Nov. 20, 1968, 78 people died when a huge explosion rocked Consolidation Coal’s No. 9 Farmington mine. Three years prior, four men had died there in an explosion so severe that “victims were blown completely out of the shaft. ” 23 That day, the men had been working inside a new airshaft when methane was ignited. Investigators speculated that a frayed wire or a spark from a dropped tool set off the explosion. (Chapter 10 Stewart book) A decade earlier, the No. 9 mine had claimed 16 miners in a gas explosion. 24 Some of the surviving family members of that disaster lost additional family members in the 1968 blast.
20 Elsie McCormick, “They Don’t Have to Die,” Saturday Evening Post, Aug. 10. 1946.
21 Ben A. Franklin, “Mine Safey Bill Seeks to Fill Gaps,” New York Times, Dec. 16, 1968, accessed through ProQuest Historical Newspapers, p. 65 22Some 20 years after the more stringent legislation was passed, national media continued to highlight problems with the mining industry’s “lax enforcement.” “Mine Safety Agency Accused of Lax Enforcement,” The New York Times, March 12, 1987.
23 Associated Press, “Flat Run Mine Blast Fatal to 4,” Charleston Gazette, May 1, 1965.
24 James A. Haught, “The Farmington Mine Disaster, 1968,” Charleston Gazette, Nov. 21, 1969, in West Virginia: Documents in the History of a Rural-Industrial State, p. 305.
25 John Hart, “Mine Disaster / West Virginia,” Nov. 20, 1968, CBS Evening News, Vanderbilt
Farmington site on Dec. 6, 1907, when 361 men and boys were killed in an explosion. 26 In his book, Monongah, former federal mine official Davitt McAteer puts the death toll at well more than 500 men and boys.
On that tragic day in Farmington, 99 miners were underground when the explosion occurred, and 21 managed to make it to the surface. Then, as when the Sago Mine disaster was under way, Americans watched a coal mine disaster’s aftermath on national television, hoping for a miracle. The difference between the media events is that the Farmington disaster was the first in the U.S. to be played out before a national television audience. After ten days of rescue efforts, company officials sealed the mine to put out the fires, with the bodies of 78 men still inside, 600 feet below surface. The coal company, CONSOL, later retrieved 59 bodies. Nineteen men remain entombed.
Company and federal officials said they didn’t know what caused the explosion, and for 40 years, the cause remained a mystery. However, just months after the disaster, a federal investigator discovered a safety alarm on a ventilation fan had been deliberately disabled. The investigator wrote a memo to his superiors that was largely ignored and filed away, remaining unknown to the public until November 2008, when co-author Bonnie Stewart found and reported on it as part of a National Public Radio story on the disaster’s anniversary. 27 CONSOL Energy. CONSOL began operations in 1864, and at the time of the Farmington disaster was the world’s largest soft coal producer. 28 Today, CONSOL remains the second largest coal producer in the U.S., having produced more than 3.5 billion tons of coal since its inception. 29 The company employs more than 8,000 people across six states, with the majority employed in West Virginia and Pennsylvania, and owns more than 430,000 acres of land in North America. In addition, the company operates the largest private coal research and development facility in the world. A CONSOL subsidiary, CNX Gas, is the largest producer of natural gas in the Appalachian Basin, operating more than 2,600 wells and producing 245 million cubic feet of methane per day.
The energy company practices corporate social responsibility, donating more than $1 million to the various communities in which it operates. According to its Web site, this charitable giving supports youth organizations, public safety and other community organizations.
CONSOL is a corporate sponsor of the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team, and has even acquired the naming rights to the new Pittsburgh multi-purpose arena where the Penguins are scheduled to begin play in 2010.
According to their corporate Web site, safety is “at the core of everything” CONSOL does, stating that their safety record is nearly two times better than the industry average. It also mentions that they’ve been nationally and internationally recognized for their safety efforts and achievements, although details are not given. However, they claim not to be satisfied with this, saying: “Our Absolute Zero safety initiative sets zero accidents as the only acceptable result.” There is little other detail, although it does mention that CONSOL will teach employees that they are empowered to stop operations if they believe that safety is being compromised.
26 That disaster has been chronicled by a colleague of the authors, Gina Martino Dahlia, in her award-winning documentary, “The Monongah Heroines.” 27 This piece can be found at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=97115205.
This paper examines the 1968 disaster that led to the landmark National Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 by exploring media reports and available CONSOL documents through a symbolic approach lens, and then via today’s Public Relations Society of America stated ethical values.
Literature Review Crisis communication scholars have employed numerous research perspectives during just the past decade. For example, some scholars (e.g. Hearit, 2006; Rowland & Jerome, 2004;
and Burns & Bruner, 2000) have focused on image restoration theory. Ulmer, Seeger & Sellnow (2006) note that this work focuses primarily on “the immediate aftermath of an event and does so through the lens of various strategic messages including denial, shifting the blame, mortification, corrective action, and minimization, among others. In essence, image restoration and its variants attend to questions of reputational repair by articulating the range of assorted strategic messages likely to repair the image of the organization or individual under attack” (p. 130). They go on to argue that another important part of post-crisis research that should be considered is renewal to a “post-crisis innovation and adaptation of the organization” (p. 131).
Other scholars (e.g. Fearn-Banks, 2002, Grunig, Grunig & Dozier, 2001) have extended excellence theory (Grunig & Grunig, 1992, and Grunig & Hunt, 1984) to crisis communication research, “suggesting how organizations should be practicing public relations in the most ethical and effective manner” (Copple-Moore, Anca Micu and Glen T. Cameron, nd). Others (e.g.
Cameron, Croppp & Reber, 2001) have explored contingency theory’s continuum, from advocacy to accommodation and the many points in between, along which an organization might move depending on the particular crisis situation and its aftermath.
Crisis communication scholar Timothy Coombs (2000, 2008) has written extensively about such crisis response typologies. As part of this work, he and Holladay (2001) integrated the relationship history of an organization with the symbolic approach “to unpack the crisis response process” (2001, p. 321). This approach examines how the “situation can influence the selection and effectiveness of crisis response strategies” (p. 321).
Coombs and Holladay (2001) discuss an organization’s performance history in terms of crisis history and relationship history and note that “the justification of crisis history is steeped in the attribution theory roots of the symbolic approach” (p. 323). Research has indicated that the more often an organization experiences crises, the more likely people are to perceive the organization as being at fault (Griffin, Babin & Attaway, 1991). Coombs and Holladay (2001) explain that a positive relational history helps the organization when a crisis does occur. People are more apt to see the crisis as an anomaly and more likely to retain an overall positive perception—a form of “halo” effect, they say.
Certainly, the Consolidated Coal Company had experienced numerous coal mine disasters over the years. After all, it was the nature of the business. A December 1968 New York Times article noted that industry-wide, 5,500 coal miners had perished in the 16 years since the first Federal Coal Mine Safety Act had been established in 1952. 30 The No. 9 miners and their families also knew that the mine was a dangerous place, and that the company didn’t seem to do all they could to protect them.
In co-author Stewart’s Chapter 4 of her book manuscript about the disaster and its bungled investigation, she discusses her interview with survivor Pete Sehewchuk, “a salaried 30Ben A. Franklin, “Mine Safey Bill Seeks to Fill Gaps,” New York Times, Dec. 16, 1968, accessed through ProQuest Historical Newspapers, p. 65 781 company man” who had been subpoenaed for the investigation hearing a few days after the explosion, but was told by a superior not to show up and that the company would “take care of it.” 31 Stewart writes, “His superiors knew he wasn’t happy with the conditions in the mine.
That, he has always believed, is why they did not want him to testify.” Those who did testify had to do so in front of their company bosses, and were clearly intimidated, Stewart reports. One miner said he would submit his statement in writing to Congress so that it didn’t get “whitewashed” before they saw it.
Survivor Alva Davis testified that “there has been several failures toward safety features and if we would bring it to their attention, the company, there was different times that they would look down their noses at us. I haven’t been proud the way Consol has treated me although I went ahead and made money off Consol. I had a family to support … “ Stewart’s investigation revealed that the government inquiry did demonstrate that the mine was unsafe and that Consol had been breaking numerous state and federal laws, including those that regulated mine ventilation and coal dust control. The mine was permanently sealed in 1978, when Consol said it was too dangerous for the remaining 19 bodies to be recovered. Privately, as seen in confidential company documents, Consol acknowledged the recovery was too onerous and expensive a task.
This research helps add to the crisis communication literature by exploring rare, primary corporate crisis communication documents, uncovered through the co-author’s investigation, and by also reviewing company statements as carried in local and national media during a highly publicized and emotional crisis that lingered for years and that also carried with it a threat to the industry by way of strengthened national safety legislation. The authors use these findings to reflect upon Coombs and Holladay’s crisis communication research regarding performance history in the crisis response process.
Method Specifically, this paper uses available company documents post-disaster, from October 1970, when the mine was reopened to recover more bodies, through August 1978, when the mine was permanently sealed, and background from nearly 100 local and national newspaper stories from the time of the explosion through December 1978 to examine company responses to the crisis. Therefore, a case study approach was used to document public/external company positions and private/internal communications. Case studies can help understand complex social events by providing context to a situation 32 and can provide evidence of organizations’ crisis actions. 33 News coverage was gathered from 17 different newspapers over five different years (1968-1971, the time of the explosion, its investigation, federal legislation, and recovery efforts;
and 1978, when the mine was permanently sealed). Three national network broadcasts from CBS News also were reviewed: two from 1968; the third, the explosion’s anniversary in 1969). The media coverage was documented, reviewed for company statements, then assimilated.
Findings Initial Media Coverage. Consol communicated rapidly and regularly following the disaster, with a series of press briefings held throughout the day of the initial blast. The company had a representative, executive vice president of mining operations from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, William Poundstone, on site meeting “with dozens of West Virginia and national 31 Bonnie Stewart, Chapter 4, unpublished manuscript, 2010.
R. K. Yin, Case study research: Design and methods (2nd ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
32 33 M. Ogrizek and J. M. Guillery, Communicating in Crisis. New York: Aldine De Gruyter, 1999.
782 newsmen who flocked to the scene” hours after the initial blast. 34 Estimates of the number missing varied throughout the day, but by night, an unnamed spokesperson was reported to say the number was 78.
A store across from the mine served as the gathering place for media updates and waiting relatives. The store supplied shelter, food and drink for “hundreds of persons waiting for word of loved ones trapped in the mine.” 35 At 6 p.m., the last press conference of the day was held, and they announced another for 10 a.m. the next morning. Given the news cycle of that day, this press conference schedule makes sense. The evening news had the latest information from the 6 p.m. news conference, and newspapers could attend the 10 a.m. briefing the next day with their day-shift reporters.