First of a series on crisis communications surrounding Hurricanes Harvey and Irma
As everyone now knows, Hurricane Harvey dealt record-setting blows, with devastating winds and floods, to coastal Texas, to Houston – the nation’s fourth-largest city – and to a vast swathe of people living in East Texas and Louisiana. It even affected me personally as a homeowner in Rockport, Texas, where the eye of the storm made landfall. Thankfully, our home – an historic landmark and the oldest structure in town – made it through with much less damage than many of our neighbors.
Harvey’s effects will be felt for years, and one could easily write an entire crisis management book based on that storm alone. Many, for example, are focused on the debate over whether Houston should have evacuated some neighborhoods before the storm.
But in this post, I’d like to draw some lessons from the experience of Arkema, the France-based chemical company whose plant east of Houston lost cooling power for its chemicals and, as a result, experienced a series of explosions and fires. Watching it unfold brought to mind two events from my own crisis management experience: the explosion of a chemical plant in Waxahachie, Texas in October 2011, and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster earlier that same year.
Arkema’s Crosby, Texas plant produced a chemical called organic peroxides used in the manufacture of plastics. These chemicals must be kept refrigerated. If they are not, they begin to decompose. The decomposition gives off heat, creating a cycle that ultimately can lead to fire and, in the right circumstances, explosions.
When Hurricane Harvey was forecast, Arkema says, it took a variety of precautions to ensure that refrigeration of nine containers storing organic peroxides at its plant would be maintained. But those efforts proved insufficient. Harvey made landfall on August 25, and stayed in the Houston region for days, dumping up to 40 inches of rain on the plant. On August 27, main power was lost, and backup generators failed the next day. Two days later, residents within a 1.5 mile perimeter were evacuated, and, as expected, the chemicals began to catch fire on August 31, leading to a series of explosions and the production of a thick black smoke.
My expertise is in communications, not in the operational aspects of managing a chemical plant. But I could not help recalling the similarity between this cooling failure and the one that affected the Fukushima Daiichi plant in March 2011. At Fukushima, too, emergency generators that were relied on after main power was lost failed when they became flooded. In that case, it was by a tsunami that broke previous records and overwhelmed a seawall. In Arkema’s case, it was a record-breaking rainfall. Both cases reflected a failure to expect the unexpected and to place the electrical generators in a place where flood waters could not reach them. One key difference is that Arkema had days of advance warning that Harvey would pound the area with exceptionally heavy rains; the operator of the Fukushima plant had but minutes between the earthquake and the tsunami it generated.
Unsurprisingly, Arkema has already been sued. A group of first responders claim they were made ill by the fumes from the fire, and that operators of the plant were negligent. More lawsuits from nearby residents may follow.
More striking to me, however, was Arkema’s apparent lack of preparation for crisis communications. On Aug. 31, the president of Arkema’s acrylic monomers business, Richard Rennard, held an outdoor press conference together with the first responders.
Rennard appeared sincere and earnestly attempted to answer questions. But he appeared inadequately prepared with facts, and made what I would consider some unforced errors.
He opened his remarks with a statement about how difficult things had been for Arkema over the previous several days. For some reason this appears to be a frequent temptation of CEOs. That temptation should always be resisted. No one cares how hard this is for you.
Then, he said, he was there to deliver “key messages.” While it is good to have key messages to deliver, it is better to simply deliver them with sincerity and authenticity. Telling a press conference “I am here to deliver key messages” is like saying “I am here to spin you.”
He then got around to what he should have opened with: thanking first responders for their work, which he called “heroic.” Unfortunately, he did not at that same time express any concern for the well-being of the nearby residents who had been evacuated, nor apologize for the inconvenience.
He then discussed the “unprecedented” nature of the storm and the “extraordinary” – though ultimately unsuccessful – efforts of his team to keep the chemicals from catching fire. He then later got into a semantic debate with a reporter about whether the smoke from the fire was toxic or merely “noxious,” and would not confirm and earlier assertion made by others that the smoke was “no more dangerous than a barbeque.”
When asked about the placement of the generators, he said “we didn’t anticipate having six feet of water in our plant,” and when questioned about whether there should have been better backup, instead of saying “we will study this and learn from it,” he said, “I’m not sure we could have done more.”
What should he have done? What are the best practices in a situation like this? Here are several:
- Prepare your key messages, decide what you want the net impact – or “takeaway” – to be, and rehearse. Perhaps Rennard did these things, but as I watched the press conference several times on video the key messages he was attempting to deliver were not apparent to me.
- Have key facts in hand to reduce the potential for public anxiety. His inability to say what was in the smoke not only led to anxiety but also generated a hostile response from reporters. It is not entirely surprising that the lawsuit from first responders focuses on the effects of the fumes and smoke. This reminded me of the Waxahachie experience, when the company’s refusal to publicly disclose the chemicals that were inside the plant generated anxious speculation and negative media coverage.
- Where you don’t have the facts at hand, explain the process you’re using to find them out. Near the end of the press conference, a reporter says to Rennard, “It sounds like there’s a lot you don’t know.” That probably could have been avoided by explaining what was being done to learn more.
- Prepare in advance effective visuals: graphics of the plant, how the chemicals are stored and protected, etc. And deploy those assets quickly.
- Avoid saying whether or not the events were foreseeable, or contending that you couldn’t have done more. Instead, pledge to study the event and learn from it.
- Show empathy and concern for those affected. In the major gas leak at Los Angeles’ Aliso Canyon in 2015, more than 8,000 families had to be temporarily relocated. After a slow start, the Southern California Gas Co. made major investments in reaching out to those families and working with them. In his press conference, Rennard didn’t mention the affected evacuees until the very end, and said affected people should call their claims line, which he didn’t know.
Realistically, there’s no way that a company can have a plant explode and not face criticism, lawsuits and regulatory action. But sound preparation and experience communicators can at the very least keep a company and its CEO from shooting themselves in the foot and making matters even worse. Sometimes, that alone counts as a victory.