Emergency responders and crisis communicators will for months be sifting through the aftermath of the West Fertilizer Company tragedy near Waco in search of clues and lessons learned. Firm conclusions regarding communication matters cannot yet be drawn, but here are some initial observations.
Roughly 48 hours passed before plant owner Donald Adair issued his first statement. That was about 47 hours too late and long after President Obama and Texas Governor Perry had issued theirs.
By comparison, and recognizing that the West Fertilizer Co. is not a global behemoth, BP issued seven statements on the first day of their 2005 refinery explosion in Texas City where, coincidentally, about the same number of employees and contractors were killed and injured as in the West explosion that affected mostly first responders and neighbors.
Adair, his wife and six of his seven children reportedly live in the West area. One daughter, a nurse, helped triage the injured after the blast. Adair bought the plant in 2004 and the community was grateful he kept it open. Reuters reporters interviewed a dozen local residents who know Adair and most were not angry at him, in part because they knew the plant existed first and the town expanded around it.
Adair also enjoyed a solid reputation as a good neighbor, according to the Reuters report. A local bakery owner credits the Adairs with generous donations to community events and said “they’ve been good citizens of this community,” a sentiment that appears widely held.
It’s unclear what, if any, electronic communication tools the West Fertilizer Co. had in place. It hired DPK Public Relations and it’s on their website that you can find Adair’s two and only public statements. The advantage of using web-based applications like Facebook and Twitter in a crisis is that you can issue regular updates from near or far, and this technology can typically spread your message directly and more rapidly than traditional news media.
For more insights on the use of social media in a crisis, see Dayna Steele’s Fast Company article “4 Ways Your Company Can Deal with Disaster in a Social, Mobile World” and Gerald Baron’s white paper “Why Crisis Communication Plans Fail.”