MT Expert - People: Telling a good-news story

The Chilean miners' ordeal can give us all food for thought, says John Kershaw of Pumphouse

Last Updated: 22 Oct 2010
Now that the emotion and high drama of the 33 Chilean miners’ rescue has subsided it is worth reflecting on how this epic event was handled on numerous levels. It is clear to see the many parallels between the rescue of ‘the 33’ and the business world.
Once the devastating news emerged that there had been a collapse and lives were potentially lost, the corporate machine that was the San Jose mining company swung into action, making statements to protect its reputation, using PR and the media to control the story at first, before the slow realisation that far more was at stake, if a successful outcome was not forthcoming.
As the weeks passed and the rescue team worked the problem, the rescue operation became an epic of human nature, expertise and technological feats.
So how does this relate to the business world? Is there something here that accurately mirrors how businesses react to ‘bad news’ and the effects on its workforce? How the right strategy and teamwork executed in the right manner brings about the desired conclusion?
After the initial shock of the collapse the management soon got to work devising a rescue strategy. At the same time many other issues had to be addressed – managing the media and feeding it the right amount of information at the right time to tell a positive story at every possible opportunity. Running alongside this, was the management of expectations of other stakeholders, particularly the families of the miners and all the back office staff employed by the company, the miners at all pits across the country, as well as current and potential investors, suppliers and buyers across South America. In terms of teamwork across so many different groups you would have to look back to the Apollo 13 rescue for the last time that failure was not an option on such a grand scale.
Many of the key learnings that can be drawn from the experience are grounded in the very fibre of corporate life, others are worth re-emphasising. Identifying the extent of the issue, properly breaking it down to make it more manageable is a very powerful way of getting teams to clearly understand all the risks and implications in an analytical manner. It helps give context too so that all departments understand what the others are facing and what their objectives and targets are.
Keeping a ‘stiff-upper-lip’ might appear to be a very British trait, but there is no point in bailing out when things get tough. It is precisely in tough times that teams need to be at their strongest and most supportive. Those who are feeling vulnerable or unsure need to be motivated and encouraged. This is where assembling the right expertise to work together to create a positive outcome is crucial. Re-defining job roles may be required
Finally, it might sound like motherhood and apple pie, yet coordinating all the elements to come together at the right time is an invaluable strategy, closely followed by testing and rehearsing a given process, not to the extent of wearing it out, but rather to keep ensuring it responds to what is needed at the time.
This is what all companies, when faced with communicating difficult issues, have to successfully negotiate if the damage to reputation both internally amongst employees and externally is to be mitigated. It all rests on the right strategy being devised and implemented and if that means taking time in the first instance to get it right then there’s at least 33 people who are more qualified than most who would agree with that.

Pumphouse is a leading face-to-face communications consultancy

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