West Virginia CEO drowns himself over company water pollution


Just when the spectacle of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s news conference last week seemed the most advantageous teaching moment in years for crisis managers, along comes Gary Southern, president of Freedom Industries.

If you don’t live near Charleston, WV, that’s the company whose leak of industrial chemicals into a river upstream of the city’s water intakes polluted the drinking supplies hundreds of thousands of residents for days.

Everything about Southern’s performance is wrong — and reeks of lack of planning. He was crashing by the seat of his pants — and thanks to my EMA partner Rick Lyke for noting this sad performance.

He is harried and impatient, even obnoxious. He speaks with a British or Australian accent, a factor that won’t endear him to West Virginians anxious about how much the company cares about them.

And, almost unbelievably, he spends the brief news conference drinking water from a chilled bottle.

He touches on the reason early: He’s losing his voice. Then take a throat lozenge.

But don’t use a prop that, 1. is distracting and interruptive; and, 2. waves in everyone’s face the fact that they’re all drinking water out of bottles because of the leak from his company. It’s a red flag to people who can’t wash, cook or drink water because of his company.

Not since New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller threatened to drink a glass of PCB-laced water has a prop backfired so fully.

To top it all off, he has no messaging and little patience; he antagonizes reporters trying to get answers; he walks away to end the exchange and then returns only to walk away again.

This was the wrong person at the wrong time in the wrong circumstances equipped with the wrong mindset and messaging to handle his company’s crisis.

My bet is the company — a chemical maker located next to a river — nonetheless had no crisis plan in place prior to this event. [If it did, Southern didn’t bother following it.] A crisis plan would have found a better company spokesman, a native who could keep emotion out of a Q&A with reporters, someone who could be as proactive and professional as possible and deliver clear, useful information to its customers.

This clip already goes into our files as an example of how to make a crisis worse.

Stunning performance. Take another swig of clean, clear, ice-cold water.

The content of this blog is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It originates with Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and in four top editor positions at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower + Associates, one of the nation’s largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agencies, with seven offices in the Northeast and Southeast. Learn more about EMA at http://www.mower.com. Steve’s blog is based on his own opinions and does not represent the views or positions of Eric Mower + Associates.

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About steveoncrisis

The content is about crisis management and mismanagement in a digital age. It comes from Steve Bell, who spent 30 years as a journalist for the Associated Press and as managing editor and editorial page editor at The Buffalo News. He is now Partner/Director of Public Affairs at Eric Mower and Associates, one of the nation's largest independent advertising, integrated marketing and public relations agency with six offices in the Northeast and Southeast.
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