The Internet and the Rules for Handling a Crisis

The Internet presents businesses and organizations in crisis with many new challenges and lessons. Chief among them is that you cannot afford to be an absentee participant when it comes to crisis communications.

That lesson comes through loud and clear in the TVA’s pre-Christmas coal sludge spill in eastern Tennessee. The extent of the flood of gook and the issues and concerns that remain unresolved demand a continued presence by a representative of senior management, on or near the scene and providing regular updates. Yet, TVA CEO Tom Kilgore apparently has managed only two appearances thus far, at a briefing shortly after the containment pool was breached, and then a community meeting a couple of days after Christmas (1st video below). Otherwise, the few bit parts TVA played in media reports were handled by spokespersons and management from the Kingston Power Plant, source of the sludge. Title and media access at a fixed location would’ve afforded a senior manager more of a role in news stories.

In the interim, real and self-appointed environmentalists and some agents of fear were allowed to dominate either through mainstream media or online. On, for example, you can find a number of videos. Some are actual news stories from “mainstream” media. But the “library” of videos also includes amateur “reports” that can leave very damaging impressions.

For instance, the nine minute video (2nd video below), apparently of two men in a car confronting a sheriff’s deputy at a road block. They say they want to go through in order to deliver printed warnings and advisories to residents along the river about the potential dangers to their drinking water. They talk about people who have become ill from the water. But, they offer no facts, only rumors and conjecture. In fact, they are not even from the area. They claim they’re from Indiana. We don’t even see them until one makes an on-camera appearance late in the video. (His image is reminiscent of a character from the movie Deliverance, and I’m not referring to Burt Reynolds and friends in the rafting party. On looks, alone, this guy is not someone you would immediately rely on for help or information.)

Cyberspace represents a playing field without boundaries or ground rules. And, while legitimate journalists and others who are guided by a sense of ethics and balance participate, so, too, do many, many others who can “report” without being edited or controlled in any way. Indeed, even the bonafide media give access to anyone with a camera. For instance, CNN’s includes this disclaimer: “ is a user-generated site. That means the stories submitted by users are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they post. Only stories marked ‘On CNN’ have been vetted for use in CNN news coverage.”

It appears TVA treated this as a local story that, unlike the pool of sludge, could be contained. But nothing is local any longer. The Internet has guaranteed that. Plus, this spill led a number of national newscasts shortly after it happened.

You need to take ownership of the crisis in representing your organization. The news media always will chase third party and eye witness comments. Those elements can leave lasting, damaging and incorrect impressions. There’s no question that this sludge spill is a major story and the long-term effects remain to be seen. But TVA’s low level participation has allowed the prominence of many damaging impressions, real or perceived, that may never be fully erased by an industry that can ill afford them.

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