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Reckoning with Rumor

Man, what a horror show in West Virginia last night; you have to feel incredibly badly for everyone involved.

But also, what a case study in crisis communications: Somehow–apparently there was a screw-up between rescue crews in the mine and the command center, the result of which was picked up and relayed from cell phone to cell phone–families of the trapped miners heard around midnight that nearly all were safe. (The New York Times actually reported in this morning’s late edition that a state official said the men were being examined before being taken to hospitals.)

And then, three hours later, everyone learned that just one man, in fact, had survived.

Both Ben Hatfield, CEO of the company that owns the mine, and West Virginia governor Joe Manchin admitted that they knew within 20 minutes of the first report that it probably wasn’t true. But they didn’t tell the families–basically, they said, because they weren’t sure what was true.

One obvious lesson for managers in crises: Don’t say anything publicly before you know it’s for real. And admit when you don’t know. But that’s easy to say. Read Governor Manchin’s account of getting swept into a jubiliant crowd in the local church. It’s midnight. Many of these people have been awake for 40 hours straight. Emotions are surging. So are rumors. Can any communications strategy account for that?

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