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Recent Columbia Gas crisis has some stark lessons for us all

Think you have a crisis PR plan in place should things go wrong? It is likely that Columbia Gas thought so, until dozens of fires and explosions hit the Lawrence area – leaving families homeless – and leading to rampant speculation in the media and online. I guarantee you they had a plan. But, the very scope of the crisis overwhelmed them. Obviously, this was an accident – one the company’s communication department could not have seen coming. But their failure to respond and offer answers was a failure under their responsibly as a public utility. There are lessons to be learned…

So, given the unique nature of this crisis, what can we learn?

  1. Be ready 24-hours a day. Have a communications person ready to react 7 days a week – and a team ready to ramp up in 2 hours or less. Wait any longer and you will pay a high price. Have a chain of command, trained spokespersons, have a policy for reporting from the field, a plan to help anyone impacted, allies lined up, and a very good media list and protocol in place.

  2. Social media is there to help. What is most amazing about this is how few followers Columbia has on Twitter – and this crisis was a perfect opportunity to craft a flow of information on Twitter. And after the crisis their Twitter feed had tremendous potential, but posts that flew in the face of news reporting – not showing a lot of empathy. As a result, customers probably turned elsewhere for the facts, so if this was a Twitter strategy, it did not work.

  3. Call the key leader immediately, and show leadership. The lag time after the crisis gave political leaders plenty of time to ask hard questions and launch stiff criticism in support of their constituents.

  4. Train your CEO, and have him/her ready to show empathy and leadership. Columbia got their CEO out too, and he said: "We are sorry and deeply concerned about the inconvenience. This is the sort of thing that a gas distribution company hopes never happens." In short this did not do the trick. People lost their homes, hundreds more could not go home, a person died, and emergency responders from all over the region risked their lives. Inconvenience? Gas companies have monopolies that come with a public responsibility to anticipate and prepare for all kinds of scenarios. “Hopes this never happens?” This was the wrong thing to say, and it sounds as if legal wrote it, not communications- and that shows a failure of planning.

  5. Get out there, tell the media what you know, what you are going to do, and show empathy. The longer you wait, the harder that is to do.

  6. If you have good plan, and a good response team – then you can start to rebuild your reputation. So, set up open hours for victims, but don’t make them wait hours, or send them home when your staff is overwhelmed.

  7. It is about trust. Gas, explodes. It also kills. Customers want to know that they can trust the company that supplies them gas. Go days without answers, have a lag in a response plan, and then execute poorly, and that trust will be stripped away – for a very long time.

  8. Invest in new infrastructure. A new tire might cost $150, but a blown tire can cause a crash that takes a life – there is no saving that is worth that kind of risk.

So, once the issue passes, the lawsuits come and go – and the blame subsides, what is next for Columbia? Well, there will be investigations, and if they come back with negligence as the cause – the company will be in trouble. Columbia is a subsidiary of NiSource Inc. one of the largest utility companies in the United States, serving almost 4 million natural gas customers. A rebrand may be order – but a change of culture and crisis planning should be top of the agenda, as this will be a communications case study for decades to come.

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