It has been one month since gas lines across the Merrimack Valley blew causing one death, and dozens of fires. Hundreds of homes and businesses are still without gas service, and it will likely be another month before everything is fixed. A new poll from UMass Lowell and the Boston Globe found that only 27 percent of voters are satisfied with Columbia Gas’s response. Who could blame them? From the beginning Columbia Gas has been unresponsive and uncommunicative with the public. Here are the ways Columbia Gas could have changed the narrative, and helped win over the public.
First and foremost, say something!
No one wants to be on live television with nothing to say, ever. This is only amplified when you are covering a major news story and you have hours of airtime to fill. If you go back and watch coverage of that day you will hear one thing over and over again, “We reached out to Columbia Gas, but haven’t heard anything yet.” Our reporters mentioned it at least every five minutes for seven hours straight. Columbia Gas didn’t bother to communicate until late into the night after the accident. If there is one thing everyone in crisis PR should know, it is that we don’t need much. All Columbia Gas had to do to change the narrative was release a short statement that read something as simple as, “We are working with local police and firefighters to figure out the cause of the problem.” That would be enough for the initial response. Instead 1.4 million households watching that night heard every reporter, on every local station, say Columbia Gas didn’t bother to release a public statement.
Your crews are working hard, give them credit for it.
There was a point just before midnight on the night of the explosion when dozens of trucks began lining up near the media staging area. The trucks were out of sight of crews on the ground, but all of the choppers could see them. We didn’t know what was going on. We would later piece together that these crews were preparing to go door-to-door to make sure the gas was off. We didn’t hear that from Columbia Gas, we heard it from Governor Baker during the first news conference at 12:15 AM.
This is an example of a huge missed opportunity. If you give me numbers about how many of trucks are in the field or employees are on the ground, I can turn that into a full screen and you earned 30 seconds every 10 minutes reminding people that you are working to fix the problem. If you send me a generic statement that reads, “We are working to make sure everything is safe before people can return home” I will ignore it, because no one wants to report a generic statement.
As time goes on Columbia Gas and its parent company continue to rely on government officials to provide updates to the public. Information is hard to come by, and people are reminded of that often in the countless stories about the company’s shortcomings. If you want to fight the notion that you aren’t doing enough, then you need to come out and say so. Daily updates give you a chance to talk about any and all progress you are making. It doesn’t have to be much. You could just show a map each day highlighting the streets your crews are working on. Set up a time and a place to get updates. If you call the news conference you don’t even have to take questions. This is the biggest disaster to hit your company. What else do you have going on that is more important?
These major missteps could have easily been avoided. There is still time for Columbia Gas to improve their response and earn back some favorable public opinion. Putting a face to the company’s response and increasing how frequently information is disseminated may sway a few more than 27 percent of voters.
Joe Chambers is an Emmy-nominated journalist with more than 10 years of experience working in television newsrooms across the country. He currently lives and works in Boston