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«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»

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Disaster’s Aftermath. By May the following year, a new controversial mine safety bill was introduced in Congress by West Virginia Senator Jennings Randolph. It was noted in a New York Times article that the Consol president, who also headed the National Coal Association, had made suggestions to his friend, the Senator, about what should be included in the bill. Consumer and safety advocate Ralph Nader publicly denounced his suggestions as weakening the bill, which Corcoran denied. 63 It was acknowledged in the article that Randolph’s proposed bill was considered the weakest among those proposed. What passed was the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969, which was regarded as “extremely tough” legislation, according to the New York Times, and it took effect the end of that year. 64 Ten months after the mine was sealed, the company proceeded with plans to recover the miners’ bodies. A New York Times article noted that the company “felt a special obligation to make the attempt.” It said that the company’s reputation as being safe and progressive had been tarnished by the disaster, “but beyond that, there is still a fortune in virgin coal in No. 9, perhaps 30 to 40 years of production at 10,000 tons a day or more. The company feels its investment must be salvaged.” 65 The article also noted that the company president had made “unusual personal efforts” to keep the families informed ahead of the press, sending hand-carried letters to each of the victims’ families and meeting privately with the widows and children of the miners before the recovery effort began.

62 Robert C. Welling, “Blast Victims Sealed in Fire-Ravaged Mine,” The Knickerbocker News, Nov. 30, 1968, pp. 1-2.

63 “Coal Executive Aided Randolph in Drafting Disputed Mine Safety Measure,” New York Times, May 21, 1969, p. 24.

64 Ben A. Franklin, “1968 Mine Disaster Spurs Some Reforms,” New York Times, Nov. 21, 1971,

–  –  –

However, the recovery effort between 1969 and 1971 yielded only 16 bodies, and left 62 interred. Three years after the blast, another miner was killed at the No. 9. He had participated in the rescue efforts to bring out the miners, and was driving a train full of coal out of the mine, when the overloaded train, legally without brakes, crashed. A New York Times article said in its report: “Asked about the new No. 9 casualty, a Consol public relations man commented, ‘Yeah, that’s the way it goes.’” 66 In April 1978, the company decided to cease recovery efforts. It had spent 10 years and $11 million dollars in the effort, but the point had been reached when it was no longer “safe, reasonable, feasible, and practical” to continue, referring to a 1974 agreement that had been signed by the families, when each had received $10,000 in compensation. A Consol spokesman said, “We have long since gone well beyond that point” and that proceeding further would place the recovery workers’ lives in jeopardy, and noted they would build a memorial to the men on the site. 67 By that time, all but 19 men’s bodies had been recovered. The first bodies had been recovered in October 1969, about 10 months after the initial explosion, and the last body to be found was retrieved on Dec. 2, 1977. A total of seventy-nine men were part of the recovery work force during those years, which operated around the clock, six days a week. 68 An Associated Press article at the time noted that “millions of tons of coal will remain unmined because of federal and state closure orders and a miners’ taboo against taking coal when the bodies of their brethren remain inside.” 69 However, as Stewart would learn in her investigation, mining had continued during the recovery operation, as it was deemed by the company the most efficient way to cut through the mountain for the recovery work. In fact, she reports that 600 tons a day were still coming out of the No. 9. Still, this was merely 10 percent of what had been mined before the explosion, although company documents showed there were neighboring mines through which the company could get at No. 9’s reserves.

Internal company documents. An Oct. 30, 1970, three-page news release listed the company contact as P. P. Ferretti, who was one of the vice presidents who had spoken on behalf of the company during the crisis. The release seems unconventional in that a full two of its three pages are direct quotes from the letter the company had sent to widows, noting specifics of the

rescue operation. The last paragraph, also directly from the letter, is interesting as well. It says:

“Although some people may believe that this work is being done only to produce coal, new entries provide the best means of getting there [to the bodies]. They will permit safer and more rapid means, or perhaps the ONLY [emphasis in original] method of reaching the inby working sections.” A company news release on the disaster’s eighth anniversary noted that recovery operations were still ongoing on a 24-hour, six-day-a-week basis. It discussed the number of men employed in the recovery operation, the millions of dollars spent, and that a new communications process and training center had been created in part of the mine. 70 Therefore, 66 Ben A. Franklin, “1968 Mine Disaster Spurs Some Reforms,” The New York Times, Nov. 21, 1971, p. 76.

67 United Press International, “Consol halts Farmington mine probe 10 years after disaster,” The

–  –  –





as per good crisis communication protocol, the company did discuss changes to try to help improve the safety situation. However, no quote was included from the CEO or any other official regarding continued sympathy or empathy over the ongoing situation. The exact same release was used the following year, on the ninth anniversary, with only handwritten changes to the dates noted. 71 Company documents show various plans to close the No. 9 mine, starting with handwritten meeting notes from December 1976 that resulted in a December 6, 1976, confidential interoffice memo. The memo was from Ferretti, in the Bluefield, W.Va., office, and noted the plan to announce the mine closure “on or about the lat day of work before the first scheduled Miners’ Vacation period,” along with “simultaneously” scheduled meetings of “the various groups having interest in the activities.” It listed nine such groups, including union, state and federal officials; widows and parents of those not yet recovered; international labor officials;

community and county leaders; West Virginia Governor Jay Rockefeller and the state Director of Mines; and Pittsburgh, Pa. media. The memo notes: “the Industrial Relations Department has been assigned the responsibility of communicating this announcement to the widows and parents” of those whose bodies have not yet been recovered and the United Mine Workers offices at the local, district and international levels. It states that the staff will be thoroughly briefed, “so that they may understand the making of the decision to close completely and permanently subject coal mine well enough to communicate it to others.” It mentioned a map of the mine showing the estimated locations of the remaining bodies and other “vital information

necessary for briefings and meetings” would be developed. It ends with the following sentence:

“Our plan provides that we will stand by on a continuous monitoring basis prepared to deal with any problem which may develop during the two-week Miners’ Vacation immediately following the announcement of the closing and continue the stand-by process into post-vacation period.” 72 A Jan. 10, 1977 “confidential report” spelled out the three reasons why the mine wasn’t reopening: 1) it isn’t likely the last 23 men will be recovered; 2) water and dipping coal seams in the mine make it unlikely the cause of the disaster will ever be known; 3) the No. 9 isn’t needed to get the coal; it can be accessed from other Consol mines. However, in the final “approved letter to widows & families of No. 9 victims,” signed a year and a half later by then Consol Chairman and Chief Executive Officer R. E. Samples, the third reason was not stated. Instead, the letter’s third reason said, “further exposure of our miners to the hazardous work is unwarranted.” The Jan. 10 plan also noted that the best time to announce the closing was some five months in the future, during the traditional Miners’ Vacation week of June 26, 1977, to minimize the chance of wildcat strikes. The memo notes current government activity and anti-mining sentiment, as well as the emotional implications of the announcement during the course of the mid-June UMWA elections. The document says: “In the day of universal living room participation in world tragedy through the electronic media, the Farmington No. 9 Disaster provided the Nation with a full and emotional course on the hazards of coal mining. Few would doubt that this disaster was the compelling catalyst for the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Federal Black Lung Law incorporated therein. There is a real and present danger for another round of such attention….” 73

–  –  –

A seven-page confidential public relations plan on the closing of the mine also is among the documents reviewed in this study. It begins: “Much of the success in the closing of the No.

9 Mine is going to rest with how well the public, community and employee relations phases of the operation are carried out. Therefore, the following plan is recommended.” 74 It continues with numerous subheadings, including timing, activities, press relations, informing families, and informing local community and government leaders. The press relations section is by far the most extensive, making up four full pages. Within it, it states in underlined type: “There should absolutely be no press conference…. To call a press conference to announce the planned closing of No. 9 would overemphasize its importance and call undue attention to it for the media.” Nine key messages were outlined for the press release, which was noted as the best way to make the news announcement. In addition to the points noted earlier in this paper, it also stressed that the closing was to be permanent and that no more coal would be mined there.

“Reasons should be given why it will no longer make a viable mine,” it continued. Another message was that “It will allow the families of the remaining 23 men to pursue normal lives once more.”

The plan notes:

It is inadvisable to contact editors of local papers in advance for editorial support because we would be ‘tipping our hand’ and news stories which ‘leaked out’ would be certain to result. We should be prepared, however to visit with local editors in particular, after the announcement but only in the event a controversy ensues. This action would be to seek editorial support of our position.

We should be prepared to answer all press follow-up questions as promptly and honestly as possible (and there may be many). We should also be prepared to ‘take it on the chin’ from the media as there will be many published criticisms of our action. However, these should last only a few days and should then fade away. These are far less a worry than possible wildcat strikes following the announcement.

The plan discusses that Consol officials will be in meetings at the time of the release. “By doing it otherwise … is to run the extreme risk of premature disclosure of our plans which could result in lopsided press stories, facts not right, the whole issue being blown clear out of proportion and Consol being on the defensive from the start.

“The key element to the success of this press relations plan … is surprise; our determination to do it and quickly; and the finality of the move. To do it any less quickly, or to let anyone (particularly in the government and union) know of our plans in advance of the press announcement is to run the extreme risk of having serious opposition to our move.” The plan includes the importance of contacting someone in the families of the missing miners prior to the news release. It concludes with community relations activities, which it suggested be handled by the company’s local law firm and other hand-picked representatives of the region who were familiar with the “thought and community leaders” and who could be on hand to make visits to local officials, while communication staff are busy with the press and families.

Despite the detailed plan, the closing would not occur that June. A memo to Steve Young from Ralph Hatch agrees that the announcement should follow the UMWA international elections and that the announcement should be made simultaneously to the various groups or “perhaps the widows should be first.” He suggests that specific people work with specific 74 “Confidential Public Relations Plan—Closing of No. 9 Mine,” undated.

790 groups, including the press. But the author is concerned about legal issues and suggests that research first be conducted regarding the “[legislative] Act to conclusively determine our right to unilaterally decide to abandon the recovery work.” 75 The author notes that the mine is under a federal order and he is uncertain if they can act without federal and/or state approval, and he fears great political pressure. He also notes water build-up in the mine as a safety concern for those involved in the sealing.

Two more detailed confidential inter-office memos propose two other closing dates. A March 29, 1978, memo recommends a March 31, 1978, announcement; an April 14, 1978, memo suggests an April 19 or 20 closing. The March 29 memo, which emanated from the Pittsburgh, Pa. office, notes the team who is responsible for each notification and 10 points to be “stressed in the release.” 76 It also is covered in handwritten notes that include such details as “personal contact” regarding informing the families, with additional notes indicating delivery of a letter plus noting a letter is in the mail; and that telephone notification is OK for Mine Safety and Health Agency and state Department of Mines officials.



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