Gareth Williams, the MD of UK Coal, faced the cameras last night to tell the world that one miner had been rescued for Kellingley colliery and one had died. He read a formal statement, and explained that he would not be taking questions. He did okay – but he could have done better.
First we have to say that PR does not matter compared to the horror and sorrow being experienced today by the family of the dead miner. PR people and journalists are not heartless and we know that what is a one or two day story for us is devastating and life changing for others.
Nevertheless, for executives dealing with such a disaster there are few more testing challenges than facing the media with the worst of news. It is something they have to be trained for. In talking to and training just such executives, we know that this is everyone’s nightmare. Senior executives do not think, ‘there is profit in this I don’t care’, which seems the common perception. My experience is that they care very much.
The media appearance often comes at the end of a long hard day, when keeping emotions under control and maintaining rational thought has been essential. This makes it incredibly difficult to get the tone right when the time comes to read the statement. It usually has to be read because there are always legal implications in such crisis, and a few wrong words could cost millions of pounds in compensation claims.
So Gareth Williams got a lot right: He was on site. He was not dressed in a suit. He looked as if he had been involved (I am sure he had been involved but it would have been a big mistake to put on a tie).
The problem is that he sounded like he didn’t care. The news of the death should have come first, not second. It is the important bit. Don’t try and pretend there is good news. Also, sympathy for the family should sound real. While emotions must clearly be under control, they should not be hidden. It makes you sound like it was all in a day’s work.
Mr Williams didn’t do badly but he could have done better.