Crisis Communications Lessons from Utah Mine CEO Bob Murray: Belligerence Is Not a Strategy

(I wrote this post as an Op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. It ran today in edited form at this link.I think it’s safe to say that Bob Murray has now moved into the lead for the coveted 2007 “PR Disaster of the Year” award.)

 

As the saga of the Utah mine collapse moves “from disaster to catastrophe’ to, inevitably, a place beyond our collective front-page consciousness, the national media leave Crandall Canyon families to mourn their losses. Reflecting on the news coverage of the tragedy, we are left to ponder the strange legacy of the chairman of the mining company, Bob Murray, and his bizarre style of crisis communications.

The 67-year-old Murray was in Montana when he heard of the collapse. He hopped on a private jet and was on the scene within hours, taking command of the rescue operation. He provided media with frequent updates. All this was textbook PR in the best sense. The presence of the concerned CEO on the scene of a disaster has been understood to be essential to successful crisis management since Exxon’s CEO infamously took far too long to travel to Valdez, Alaska, in 1989 to take stock of one of history’s worst environmental disasters.

But Murray broke so many rules of crisis communications he had news anchors questioning on-air what they had just witnessed. From his first briefings, Murray angrily denounced the media (seldom a winning strategy) and blamed union organizers for suggesting that the dangerous practice of “retreat mining” had led to the mine’s collapse. He blasted environmentalists for their crusade against global warming, calling it an affront to the coal industry and to the American economy.

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Crisis communications experts universally panned Murray’s rantings as “callous,” “damaging” and “not helpful” to the families of the trapped miners.

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Murray insisted that an earthquake had caused the mine collapse, then doggedly held to his theory despite all evidence to the contrary. Seismologists concluded that the collapse itself had caused tremors detected in the area. In a crisis, there always is the temptation to provide answers before all the facts are in, and to hold onto beliefs even as new evidence contradicts what we want to believe. This truism was underscored last year at the Sago mine disaster when the public was told that buried miners were alive (when in fact all but one had been killed), setting off jubilation among relatives that would be dashed hours later when disaster officials finally admitted they had been wrong.

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When three rescuers were killed by a further cave in, and each passing day dimmed any reasonable hope that the six trapped miners were still alive, Murray dropped out of sight, leaving a subordinate to conduct the briefings. Without any explanation for Murray’s disappearance one was left to assume that he was made to understand that his abrasive style did not fit the increasingly grim mood.

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Clearly there are lessons to be learned from Murray’s failings as a crisis communicator. Corporate executives need to work with public relations to develop effective crisis communications plans before a disaster strikes. They need training to be able to speak clearly in times of great stress, and to avoid the urge to talk about causal factors before all the facts are known or to debate critics when the sole focus of comments should be on the safety and welfare of the victims of the crisis. 

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Crisis readiness begins with an audit of potential vulnerabilities. Preparing for a future crisis does not mean one considers a crisis an acceptable event; indeed a thorough crisis audit may uncover deficiencies in critical systems that can be addressed to lessen the possibility of a crisis occurring. Responsible executives understand that things can and do go wrong despite their best efforts, and they understand the value of preparing for emergencies in advance.

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Crisis communications properly conducted is not spin or damage control. It is the calm and honest disposition of information that critical stakeholders need at a time when the set of known “facts” is incomplete and may be changing by the minute. Media demand immediate answers and will not hesitate to speculate to fill voids in information. Critics will criticize. It is the job of the spokesperson to rise above the melee.

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It doesn’t have to be pretty. It is a measure of the cynicism that the public holds for slick and overly scripted spokespeople that Murray’s unpolished, bellicose presence struck many as refreshingly candid.

“Despite [Murray’s] occasional moments of near-insanity, I suspect he’s better liked by the general public than he would be if he’d gone by the crisis communication book and said all the right things with controlled corporate somber,” David Murray wrote on his public relations blog “Shades of Gray.”

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Indeed, in times of crisis, spokespeople should trust in the redeeming power of authentic and candid communication. One must prepare for the worst and put in place plans for dealing with crisis while hoping never to have to use the plans. If and when tragedy strikes, the plan provides only the structure for coping successfully – the spokesperson must connect with stakeholders by being real, true and utterly human.

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We empathize with the leader who bravely steps up in a time of peril. We readily forgive an unpolished and even shaky presentation as long as we feel in our hearts the spokesperson is being truthful to us, a feeling Murray has not always inspired.

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- Jon Harmon

Comments

  1. rebecca says:

    i think that bill murray should have charges brought up to him for all the people that have been killed in the collapse

  2. Dan Bedore says:

    Even if the miners couldn’t be saved, Bob Murray could have done something special in this moment. I found his early news conferences to be candid and heartfelt. He seems a likeable, hard working kind of guy who people could rally around. And he constantly reinforced that the safety of the rescue workers was paramount.
    I found his concern to be genuine and similar to that of Bill Ford during the Rouge explosion and aftermath.
    But after the incident that took the lives of three rescue miners, I kept waiting to see Murray, who sent out a VP to handle the media from that point on. Too bad.
    The time to protect oneself from the inevitable lawsuits comes later. Perhaps the pressure of this situation was too much for him.
    In the face of a national tragedy like this, people look for leaders to help them understand it and get through it.
    Murray wasn’t up to the task.
    In this case, we’re left with no closure. Six families are left wondering if their loved ones are still alive at this moment just waiting to die with no idea that we’ve given up. And three other families wonder what their loved ones died for.
    This is truly a unique tragedy.

  3. I read your column in the Salt Lake Tribune. Great analysis. I agree that many people in Utah have accepted Murray’s “candor” and lie-riddled explanations. However, I believe it’s mostly due to the culture here that preaches uniformity, conformity and, above all, acquiescence to authority. Murray’s invocation of “the Lord” halfway through his meltdown also struck a chord. Anyone with any intelligence saw through his pandering. Things are different in Utah. Maybe Murray is crazy like a fox.

  4. johnson says:

    I read story about Crisis communications experts universally panned Murray’s rantings as “callous,” “damaging” and “not helpful” to the families of the trapped miners.Murray insisted that an earthquake had caused the mine collapse, then doggedly held to his theory despite all evidence to the contrary. Seismologists concluded that the collapse itself had caused tremors detected in the area.Six families are left wondering if their loved ones are still alive at this moment just waiting to die with no idea that we’ve given up.
    =========================================
    johnson
    utah drug rehab

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