How not to handle a crisis press conference

How do you make a crisis worse? Last month 300,000 residents of Charleston, West Virginia found out. They were left without tap water to use for drinking, cooking or even bathing for up to a week, after a hazardous coal-processing chemical leaked into the water supply from a storage facility owned by a little-known company called Freedom Industries. Hundreds had to seek medical help. Shops ran out of bottled water and West Virginia declared a state of emergency. Freedom Industries has a confusing ownership background and until the incident had been extremely media-shy; according to local newspaper reports, one of its co-founders (no longer connected with the firm) was a twice-convicted felon on tax and drugs charges. In terms of the handling of the crisis, the lack of media experience certainly showed – by all accounts it did almost everything wrong. The company first suggested around 7,500 gallons had leaked into the Elk river, but later had to admit it was actually 10,000 gallons. TV interviews were handled by company President Gary Southern – after the BP Gulf oil spill fiasco, it didn’t help that he had a British accent. At an impromptu press conference he looked enormously defensive and uncomfortable on camera, and made the classic error of trying to walk away while reporters still had important questions to ask – a no-no which will always make you look guilty. Almost comically, he was swigging from a bottle of mineral water as he spoke, rubbing in to viewers the fact that there was no other water safe to drink, and leading to YouTube responses such as this one. The outcome? Public uproar and plummeting confidence in the company in the trade – so much so that Freedom Industries has now had to file for bankruptcy. It does rather emphasise the importance of having the right crisis media plans in place.