Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Lessons from Sago at Upper Big Branch

As the town of Montcoal, West Virginia mourns its dead and waits for word on the four miners still missing following the Upper Big Branch mine explosion on Monday, minds around the country can't help but wander to the Sago mining disaster of 2006.  To refresh your memory, in January of that year an explosion tore through the Sago Mine in Sago, West Virginia, and trapped 13 miners.  Two days after the explosion, media outlets broadcast the news that all of the miners had been found alive.  Unfortunately, this was not true -- only one miner survived the accident.  Until this week, Sago was the deadliest mining accident in West Virginia for more than 40 years.

There are a lot of obvious comparisons to be drawn between what happened in Sago and what happened at Upper Big Branch.  Part of the hope that is being held out for the minders in Montcoal is that new safety equipment, invented in the wake of the Sago explosion, was installed in the mine that would allow miners who could reach it to set up self contained breathing tents in the toxic air.  One similarity that might have escaped attention, however, was noted in a story in the Associated Press today.  The Governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, who delivered the false news of survivors at Sago to the families and the press, is still the Governor.

The AP reports that Manchin appears to have learned a great deal about how to communicate and work with families in a disaster since the catastrophic blunder at Sago.  This time around, he is delivering scheduled briefings to the press and scheduled updates to the families regardless of whether there is news to share.  Everyone knows when he will be speaking, and that he will share what he knows in those updates, but this time around he isn't trying to take control of the information.

What Manchin did at Sago was a very understandable and, in some sense, very common mistake.  He saw his role as using information to calm and comfort people, and so he was desperate for information that would do that.  As a result, when he heard a preliminary radio transmission of survivors (it turned out he misheard the transmission about the single survivor) and rumors started flying through the community, he jumped to be the one to deliver the news. 

It's not at all unusual for people in positions of importance who don't actually have authority over a crisis situation to try to control the flow of information to reassure their constituents.  Information is the only control they have.  The problem is that information cannot be controlled indefinitely, or even spun indefinitely.  Eventually, wrong information will be corrected and information that is delivered with a particular spin will be seen clearly.  Sometimes, the only real information available is bad news.  People in politically sensitive positions (and here I use the term broadly to apply to politicians but also leaders like CEOs, school superintendents, and anyone else who relies on their constituents having faith in them) are afraid that if they are straightforward or, worse yet, have nothing to share, people will be angry with them.

As Manchin has learned, and as is being reinforced in Montcoal right now, this just isn't true.  Yes, people want information and are frustrated when they can't have it.  However, people also appreciate honesty.  If you can convince people that you aren't hiding anything or spinning anything, they can begin to accept that the lack of information isn't your fault, and they won't blame you.  In fact, they'll appreciate you for what you are doing, and that is being there for them even though you can't really help the situation.  That's the human decency that people remember at the ballot box.  That's the biggest lesson Governor Manchin learned in Sago.


Colleen said...

Naomi, there is hope in the world? A politician learned from his mistake and is doing better this time?

I'm sorry for the miners and their families....but I'm glad to learn that crisis management has improved.

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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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