Failing to put the pieces together

Imagine the situation: the business you lead has experienced the death of two workers while doing their job. You get asked to do a media interview about the situation, do you do it or say nothing until investigations into the deaths have concluded? It is a difficult decision but I hope most communication professionals would be keen to show empathy towards the families who have been bereaved.

When I read the comments this week of Herb Black the president and owner of American Iron and Metal (AIM) I was stunned. Despite the deaths at the West Side metal recycling plant he couldn’t find any humanity to share with the media but instead chose to say ‘I’m not god’. You can see the CBC interview here. The appearance may be emotional but the comments were robust and strident.

It may have been wiser to wait until there is more clarity about the cause of the deaths and what this means for the safety operation at the Saint John plant. When you are dealing with such a tragedy being defensive, avoiding responsibility, and trying to discuss the risks that we all face in life is always going to feel unacceptable. I was particularly shocked by the phrase ‘sh*t happens in life’ when being questioned about the safety records.

An investigation is underway by Worksafe NB which may take up to 12 months to conclude and even though Mr Black says he respects and is working with investigators he attempts to start to defend himself and the business. He also appears to blame human error for the first death and talks about he he could not see how it could be prevented. All areas that should have been avoided as the investigation needs to be the one to decide on the cause and the possibilities it could have been avoided.

One area that could have been covered was the safety operation at the plant and the measures that were in place. In such situations if there is a strong safety culture with people responsible for enforcing regulations there may be something positive to say but at the right time. When Mr Black was asked who was responsible for safety at the plant he replied: “You have to make a connection with the Lord and ask him. I’m not God. I don’t decide.” He avoided giving any details of safety practices.

At a press conference Mr Black was accompanied by a family member who had been bereaved who said she had no ill feeling towards the company and said social media rumour and speculation had caused them more pain. This should have been the focus of the media briefing rather than Mr Black. The voice of those most affected needs to be the loudest in discussing any crisis situation. When you take this media briefing apart and look at the pieces it could have been very different. There could have been an opportunity to show contrition and a willingness to support the investigation, to support those affected and to look to learn and change in the future.

Did this media briefing work? Given the negative feedback online and the frosty relationships with the journalists I doubt it. In this case saying nothing may have been the better option. I will be watching the developments in this case with interest.

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