For those of us crisis pundits who are tasked with identifying communications disasters, 2018 can only be described as an overabundance of riches. My personal theory is that the communications “expertise” of the current White House has so inured us to gaffes, insults, and outright lies, that our society’s mores and expectations have been redefined downward. Worse, our current President has become a role model of sorts, and for some people the sort of bombastically deceitful behavior that would once have been an embarrassment has become a badge of honor.
Still, we can learn something from the past year’s failures, especially from the comms catastrophe of our Grand Prize Winner. But first…
…The Runners Up
Only a nationwide epidemic of brash boneheadedness can explain the behavior of our runners up:
- Elon Musk, who tweeted sensitive financial information and flaunted his use of drugs;
- Burger King, which managed to insult half the audience of the World Cup with their advertising;
- Facebook, which has become such jerks that it seems to be achieving its mission of uniting the world by joining that world in universal loathing and mistrust.
- Roseanne Barr, whose racism on social media lost her a television show.
They all get runner-up booby prizes—which may be worse than the actual booby prize now that I think about it.
The Worst of the Worst, 2018
My personal worst of 2018’s worst is Columbia Gas, which first caused a tragedy and then compounded it with incomparably bad crisis comms. Last September, for whatever reason, this division of NiSource began pushing overly pressurized gas through the aging gas mains under the Massachusetts towns of Lawrence, Andover, and North Andover. The resulting explosions caused 18 fires, the evacuation of thousands of people, the closure of an interstate highway at rush hour, and the destruction of dozens of houses. Saddest of all, a teenage boy was killed on his way to a party to celebrate receiving his driver’s license, when a chimney fell on his car.
Evacuees were told that their electricity and gas could be off for days or weeks. As it happens it’s now been over three months—and at the start of a New England winter, no less.
Given the fact that Columbia has experienced similar crises in the past, one might have expected that they’d be prepared for this. Or at least mount a classic crisis communications response: express regret, promise to fix everything, and hope the stock price wouldn’t be hurt overly much.
Instead, there was dead silence from company officials for the first five hours (a year in Twitter Time). Their first response was a notice on the Columbia website, but regular updates didn’t start appearing there until the following morning. Federal investigators were on the scene by then, yet no one from the company even visited the incident command center for 24 hours.
A full three days later, the CEO of NiSource issued an apology, but continued to avoid talking to the local paper. As a gesture of good will, NiSource announced that it would replace the entire pipeline network, something that will probably take years. And it set up a $10 million fund to aid the victims. Which is a good start, but will be a drop in the bucket when it’s all over.
A Crisis Upon a Crisis
Columbia’s weak response quickly became a crisis in its own right. The mayor of Lawrence called Colombia “the least informed and the last to act,” and accused them of “hiding from the problem.” When 24 hours had passed with little progress on the situation, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker invoked emergency powers and put rival utility Eversource in charge of the incident.
What really pushes Columbia far ahead of the other communications losers of the year is that they ignored all established research and wisdom on how to communicate in a crisis. They paid attention to the operational response, but not to communications.
Unfortunately, gas leaks and explosions are an accepted reality within every gas utility company. Yet Columbia appeared to be not just completely unprepared, but too stunned or disorganized to respond.
“We could have done better to communicate with the communities,” the CEO admitted. “There were opportunities certainly to provide better communication in the early hours. We regret the lack of communication early on.” The CEO argued that their issue was bad timing, because everyone “was mobilizing our responses.”
A Long and Expensive Lesson in the Value of Basic Crisis Comms
Tell that to the distraught residents. Their lawyers have filed countless lawsuits, and state and federal investigators are looking into criminal charges. Never mind the NiSource shareholders who watched the stock price plummet.
U.S. Senators Elizabeth Warren and Edward Markey, and Representatives Joseph Kennedy and Nicki Tsongas have called for Senate Commerce Committee hearings. Sorting it all out will be very, very expensive. Columbia says it has paid out $20 million so far in claims. My guess is that NiSource’s attorneys fees will dwarf whatever the victims receive in compensation.
But the implications for Columbia in the long term will be even worse, since the now-distrustful public is rapidly taking away Columbia’s permission to exist as an organization. Resistance to its planned pipeline expansion heated up and generated an active protest group, the Columbia Gas Resistance Campaign. The project has become a target of Climate Action Now. And, as a result of the disaster, Columbia was forced to withdraw a rate increase application, knowing that it had zero chance of passing.
Once again, a short-sighted CEO has had to learn the hard way that ignoring communications and crisis preparations puts an organization in peril. Clearly Columbia needs to do more than just upgrade its network; it needs to update its culture and how it prioritizes communications.
Could better comms have lessened the heartache of so many destroyed homes and displaced families? Maybe. Would it have maintained the communities’ trust in Columbia? Probably not, unless their words were accompanied by better actions. But what we do know is that whatever it might cost to upgrade Columbias communication culture is now a drop in the bucket compared to what will be the ultimate cost of recent events to Columbia’s bottom line. ∞