«13TH INTERNATIONAL PUBLIC RELATIONS RESEARCH CONFERENCE “Ethical Issues for Public Relations Practice in a Multicultural World” Holiday Inn ...»
The April 14 memo also stated, “After thinking about putting the plan into action on the Friday following the Conoco Stockholders Meeting, I do not recommend this even with the threat that questions concerning the closing could arise at the meeting.” 77 Board of directors meeting minutes show that as the last order of business, a brief statement was made that the mine was closing and that a memorial would be erected In memory of those lost. 78 The PR plan included a timeline of events, which began with activities for “D Day minus 1—Mail letters to survivors—indicating therein that in the agreement that they have signed they have said that they will not obstruct... and indicate that you would like for them to form a memorial committee.” The timeline continues with the other steps, including letters to current No. 9 employees the next day, the personal visits to families, the meetings, the notification of West Virginia’s Congressional delegation, communication with coal trade associations, religious leaders, Consol officials, staff assigned to specific media contacts, and the needed documents.
Letter to No. 9 Employees—have jobs.” Assignments for the closing also are detailed in a “personal & confidential” document. 79 It lists specific assignments, beginning April 14 and continues through the week. Notes include the need to prepare scripts for radio, TV and phone interviews, as well as background 75 Memo to Steve Young from Ralph Hatch, Dec. 8, 1976.
76 Interoffice Memo to B. R. Brown from H. A. Cochran, Subject: Closing of No. 9, March 29, 1978.
77 Memo to R. E. Samples and B. R. Brown from H. A. Cochran, Subject: Closing of No. 9 Mine, April 14, 1978.
78 “Continental Oil Company Minutes of Meeting of the Board of Directors Held At Stamford,
information, to check the company’s legal obligations, and to develop correspondence for the families. Consol’s PR director, Hazlett Cochran, was responsible for the releases, scripts, fact sheets, recovery chronology update, assignments, last-minute checks, and the letter to the families.
In his recovery chronology fact sheet, he writes: “The reopening and subsequent recovery operations have been extremely difficult, time consuming and a tremendous waste of good manpower and money.” Families of the men who were recovered likely would have disagreed.
Yet, it was noted in the plan that the fact sheets were intended for Consol officials only.
A copy of the release noted “positively not for release before noon, April 19,” and the plan called for them to be hand delivered to AP, UPI, a Charleston newspaper and three local newspapers around mid-morning. A “while you were away” note pad sheet indicated that by 11 a.m. that day, 16 of the 19 families had been notified—“only 1 problem so far!,” it said. 80 Confidential meeting notes from April 19 also are among the papers that show 11 men present for one of the concurrent “community relations” meetings, this one where Consol officials notified the No. 9 Committee and Burdette Crowe, president of the local UMW district of the closing. The cryptic minutes show the meeting opened at 10:15 a.m. with the announcement by Consol Fairmont Vice President H. Eugene Mauck that recovery was to be discontinued and then the letters to the widows were read. The union representative noted that they would oppose “cutting into a burial of brothers.” 81 The union representative seemed upset that a meeting wasn’t called before of all the agencies to discuss the closing. A No. 9 miner stated he felt that a “divide and conquer tactic” had been used, which was met with silence by the Consol official conducting the meeting. Another No. 9 miner asked if the equipment to be removed was near the supervisor’s body; the Consol official denies knowing where the body is located. In its April 14 memo, it was noted that the body was believed to be in the vicinity, but to begin to search for it would commit to “searching another area and this type of thing could go on indefinitely.” 82 The union official and others urged a meeting with the four agencies—a meeting not planned for, but that did occur, according to company records, on April 27.
The minutes for this meeting showed 28 people present: seven from Consol; three from MSHA; two from the local union district; six from the UMWA, including four representing its Safety Division and one, its Legal Department; three from the state Department of Mines; two widows; and a local reporter. A UMWA representative acted as the meeting’s “leader.” One of the widows and current No. 9 miners, among others, requested that the closing cease until a plea could be made to Consol superiors. Mauck noted that he summarized by saying that no new information had been raised that would change the company’s position; “that the Company had indeed given great concern over the facts, and especially of the 19 remaining bodies interred therein; that the loss of this great mine was a blow to the Community as well as the Company.” 83 But that he must proceed with the plans. Consol’s CEO, R. E. Samples, followed up with the UMWA with a May 3 memo that said he had reviewed all of the questions and 80 To HEM, taken by jlm, “While you were away,” April 19, 1978.
“Meeting on Closing of #9 Mine,” confidential, April 19, 1978.
81 82 Memo to R. E. Samples and B. R. Brown from H. A. Cochran, Subject: Closing of No. 9 Mine, April 14, 1978.
83 “Four-Agency meeting,” MSHA Conference Room, Morgantown, West Virginia, April 27, 1978.
792 objections raised at the meeting, but then reiterated the three key points outlined for continuing to close the mine—points which had been outlined as key messages nearly a year and a half earlier, in the Jan. 10, 1977, report. Consol does outline that it will seal off the area where it is believed victims’ bodies lie as a cemetery and note as much on mine maps, so that the area is never disturbed, and that a memorial to the men will be placed on the mine site, which Consol will maintain.
Another meeting took place May 24, 1978, at the mine, with 18 attending. All of the previous entities were represented at this meeting, with the exception of the reporter. Some of the men went into the mine and were shown the recovery locations. After conferring with state and federal inspectors and the widows, a union representative again asked that the recovery be continued. Mauck noted again that the decision was made carefully and that the process had become more dangerous. He notes in his meeting minutes: “The only bad statement was from [UMWA official] Dave Smith who challenged Consol’s ‘running record.’ That, ‘Consol hasn’t a good record of explosions and recovery of mines.’ I quickly responded that he was wrong and out of place with his statement; that he should know the facts before he accuses Consol. That was the last I heard from him. That was the end. Everyone left.” 84 One of the widows tried a final time to get the company to change its mind and wrote a heart-wrenching five-page letter that was received in the CEO’s office May 30, 1978. He replied via letter that the decision had been made, but that the Memorial Plan would soon be developed, and he hoped she would be part of or contribute to that Committee. Later, co-author Stewart learned, Mauck called to encourage her to apply for a job with the company. She didn’t; instead, she and other widows filed a lawsuit to try to prevent the sealing. 85 Local and national media noted the company’s decision, which it said was due to unsafe conditions and the unlikelihood of finding more bodies. 86 However, these reports also noted the UMWA representative’s dissenting viewpoint and that the widows vowed to fight on.
Discussion Coombs and Holladay (2001) found that “an unfavorable relationship history or crisis history leads people to perceive the organization as having more responsibility for the crisis” (p.
335), but they note that in their experiment, at least, the effect was small. Instead, they concluded that “relationship history appears to be a more powerful predictor of organizational reputation than crisis history” (p. 335). “Relationship and crisis history can create a strong, negative velcro effect,” they say, in which a poor performance history or negative reputation attracts additional reputational damage (p. 335).
It is not known how this disaster affected the company that owned Consol, Continental Oil Company’s, stock prices nor what employee or public opinion polls would have found during the 10-year ordeal. However, it is clear that negative comments about company safety did come out during the days after the crisis and during the disaster hearings. National media continued, too, to write of problems with coal mine safety in the years since, and the Sago drama brought these fears—and continued mine safety violations—to national attention again. People involved with the industry also have long understood its dangers, and some seemed to exhibit a fatalistic outlook regarding it.
84 H. Eugene Mauck, “Meeting at No. 9 Mine,” May 24, 1978.
85 Bonnie Stewart, “Chapter20: Business is Business,” unpublished manuscript.
86 New York Times, April 20, 1978, p.20.
793 Regarding crisis communication scholarship, Coombs and Holladay found that an organization’s performance history, which includes both relationship history and crisis history, is closer to organizational reputation than to crisis responsibility in their crisis communication model of personal controlcrisis responsibilityorganizational reputationpotential supportive behavior. Today, Consol is active in its corporate social responsibility efforts and is highly visible and involved in the community. However, mining companies continue to face headlines for safety violations, and miners continue to die in mining accidents. 87 It is known that associative crises can occur for companies whose industries come under fire. For example, an embezzlement scandal involving a well-known nonprofit can result in decreased trust and giving toward other nonprofits. Industries that face additional federal regulations as a result of such crises and lack of public faith may be particularly reactive in trying to ameliorate the crisis effect.
Given this associative crisis effect—the opposite of Coombs and Holladay’s reputational halo effect—it is suggested that the crisis model might be adapted to include such industry-wide crisis influences. Therefore, the performance history factors might be expanded to include not only organizational crisis history, but also industry crisis history as an influencing factor.
Research that serves to better understand the associative industry crisis effects could make a broad contribution to the crisis communication literature.
Although the No. 9 coal mine disaster occurred more than 40 years ago, the case demonstrates that the company exhibited some of the suggested practices of modern crisis communication. These include communicating early and often with the media, of having the top official present to communicate and take responsibility, of expressing concern and sympathy, of being responsive to requests by media and families for more technical experts/spokespersons to be made available, and of publicly communicating steps being taken to help prevent future such crises.
However, when viewed through today’s filter, the company also performed poorly in a number of respects. For example, the company had multiple spokespersons at multiple levels throughout the company, and thus mixed messages of doom and hope for the trapped miners, of compassion and arrogance regarding the tragedy, and of sincerity and pretense were relayed through multiple media. The company’s strategic plan to close the mine nearly a decade later was conducted suddenly, without the benefit of two-way communication with the affected stakeholders. In fact, surprise was what the company hoped for to avoid the threat of organized protest and wildcat strikes. Therefore, trust was further compromised.
Ethical Values. When viewed through some of PRSA’s ethical values, we can gain yet another perspective of Consol’s actions regarding its No. 9 disaster. Specifically, PRSA believes that practitioners should * protect and advance the free flow of accurate and truthful information.
However, Consol stated as one of its reasons for closing the mine that it was unlikely the remaining bodies would be located; however, internal documents indicate they believed they were close to another body when the men were ordered to stop their recovery efforts.
PRSA values also state that practitioners should * foster informed decision making through open communication.
Yet, Consol’s “surprise” announcement to cease recovery operations was strategically planned for 15 months in secret to minimize the opportunity for discussion and dissent.
In addition, PRSA states that practitioners should * avoid conflicts of interest.
Although not an issue of communications per se, the company’s conflict in wanting to mine coal to make money and in simultaneously being charged with the rescue operation eventually caused the company to cease its recovery before it was complete. According to Stewart’s research, the federal officials wanted the company to continue its work but were fearful it could not win in court if Consol tried to fight them. Although the company went to great expense to recover the bodies it did, it stopped when it became apparent that they could access the mine’s coal seams in other ways.
Lastly, PRSA’s value to * work to strengthen the public’s trust in the profession could have been violated as well. Mixed messages, secret decisions, and surprise announcements do not tend to strengthen trust, and thus compromise professional, corporate, and this paper argues, industry reputation.