Crisis in Communications

By Stoff, Rick | St. Louis Journalism Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Crisis in Communications


Stoff, Rick, St. Louis Journalism Review


A live feed on CNN is not the place to watch the boss launch his media training. On Aug. 7, there was Robert Murray, CEO of Murray Energy Company, addressing the mine accident that trapped six men in Crandall Canyon, Utah.

Along with a few remarks about the missing men, Murray unloaded on the coal industry's image, global warming conspiracists, safety bureaucrats and seismologists. He called out, by name, media members who displeased him. The Salt Lake Tribune called the press conference "disjointed, rambling ... a public relations meltdown."

According to the CNN transcript, Murray's introductory comments included, "We produce a product that is essential to the standard of living of every American ... every one of these global warming bills that has been introduced in Congress today to eliminate the coal industry ... will increase your electric rates four- to five-fold."

After a few minutes, he briefly referred to the missing miners.

"I want to report that the families are doing fine. Considering the circumstances."

He returned to talking points, arguing that the accident resulted from an earthquake rather than a mine ceiling collapse. He complained about violations of his airspace.

"If that's another media helicopter ... please have it removed immediately ... Sheriff, we're going to have to let the controllers know that we cannot have these."

Murray criticized mine safety experts quoted in the media.

"These individuals have given very false statements ... for their own motives."

He fingered media for unapproved story lines.

"I particularly cite Mr. Seth Borenstein of the Associated Press for particularly bad reporting, and, as of this morning, the Fox News Network. I would certainly not depend on the Associated Press and Mr. Borenstein for any truths if I were an American citizen."

Murray was upset with quotes from University of Utah geologists who said measured seismic activity may have resulted from the mine collapse itself. He was unhappy with reports that the mine may have been doing retreat mining, which is deployed at the end of a mine's life. As miners and equipment withdraw, coal is removed from pillars previously left in place to support the mine roof.

Borenstein's story on the risks of retreat mining cited a report from the National Institute of Occupational Health and Safety and included an Internet link to the document. Murray denied that his company was retreat mining, but government regulators said they had approved a company-submitted plan for the mine to do so.

"Crisis management and public relations authorities criticized Murray's performance as 'callous,' 'damaging' and 'not very helpful,'" stated the Salt Lake Tribune story, which drew critical attention to Murray's safety record and reliance upon political contributions and clout.

"There are so many case studies on organizations that did it poorly," said Liese Hutchison, a member of the Saint Louis University communications faculty. …

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