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Susan Lavenski, a PR representative with Charles Ryan, says they have decided to stop representing Freedom Industries. The decision was made this morning.
No further explanation.
If you are in the chemical industry, shouldn't you prepare for the day when your product escapes the confines of your plant? Shouldn't that preparation include crisis management and how to handle a press conference? In the video above you will see that isn't the case with Freedom Industries. The company is responsible, via a chemical leak, for the contamination of the water supply for much of West Virginia's Kanawha Valley area.
On Friday evening at 5:30 PM, about 17 hours after the first alert came of a major crisis, the company responsible for 300,000 people being told not to use tap water to drink or even bath, finally briefed the public via the news media. And what a briefing it was. Take the time to watch it and you will see what I mean. President Gary Southern was so ill prepared for his role as the face and voice of this crisis for his company, the planned press conference gave the appearance of an ambush interview.
There were so many things wrong with the briefing, but the one that has received the most attention, is Southern constantly drinking from a bottle of water while talking about his company contaminating the water supply. Also, no one cares how hard Southern and his staff are working and how difficult it has been for them and it's something Southern probably shouldn't be talking about at this point.
Here's how David Gutman of the Charleston Gazette described the event:
Smells from the spill were reported early Thursday morning, but Freedom mostly stonewalled media inquiries — releasing only a bland news release through a public relations firm — until a 10-minute news conference Friday evening.
At the news conference, Freedom Industries President Gary Southern gave few details about the company, made several statements seemingly in conflict with what government officials have said, and was whisked away by a public relations handler with reporters still shouting questions.
In addition, Gutman writes that prior to Southern's performance the most extensive public statement from the company came earlier in the day from the girlfriend of another Freedom Industries executive, Kathy Stover-Kennedy, who focused on how difficult it's been with all the threats her boyfriend has been receiving.
"I'm not asking for anyone's sympathy but a little empathy wouldn't hurt. And just so you know, the boys at the plant made and drank coffee this morning! I showered and brushed my teeth this morning and I am just fine!" Stover-Kennedy wrote on her personal Facebook page.
Before the press conference Freedom Industries issued a brief statement (here) that, much like the press conference, was completely inadequate for this situation. The statement is more the kind of information you would expect via social media and a company website in the initial stages of this incident on Thursday, not a day and a half later.
I've had people in public safety who have seen the press conference who believe the real problem is that they didn't have the briefing set up in a way to control the questions by the press. Yes, the set up could have been much better, but that wasn't the problem. This debacle occurred because they had someone making a statement and answering questions who was totally unprepared for that role and they were representing a company that apparently had never given any thought, before the last two days, on how they would handle such a crisis.
For those who think the answer to a crisis is to control the news media, good luck. What you can control is yourself and how you respond. Freedom Industries should have been briefing the press and the public via social media and a website from the first minutes of this incident, providing honest, timely information as it was known and then working with the local, state and federal authorities, if possible, on continuing that process through a joint information center. Almost every one of those questions asked by the reporters could have been anticipated and answered even before meeting the press.
Gary Southern told reporters last night that Freedom Industries' "intent is to be absolutely transparent" through all of this. It may be the intent, but the reality so far is something very, very different.