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As the tragedy at the Sago mine in West Virginia unfolded on our televisions and front pages in January of 2006, I’m certain we all wondered how the story could have become such a terrific example of corporate media-relations bungling.

Perhaps I was in the minority thinking the bungling was terrific, but I’m in the media relations business – this mess was going to be a terrific teaching tool to illustrate how not to behave in a crisis.

How did such utterly wrong “facts” get released? And why did International Coal Group, the company that owns the Sago mine, let the wrong story spread for three hours before admitting to the real facts – twelve miners were dead. There was only one survivor. Not twelve, as had been joyfully reported by broadcasters and newspapers around the world.

There is one primary rule in media relations – never let the story get away from you. International Coal Group violated that rule, and wound up the poster child for corporate blundering. ICG will have “Sago mine disaster” inserted in every story about their company for years to come. The coal industry isn’t known for its safety record – now ICG has the dubious distinction of joining the “worst mining disasters” list.

Most business owners, large or small, will never face a media disaster of these epic proportions. They can, however, learn some valuable lessons by being aware of what can happen if you violate that one primary media relations rule – never let the story get away from you. Every company should have a media relations crisis plan – even if you will only end up talking to a community newspaper.

Plans for any company should follow these guidelines:

1. Be prepared

2. Tell the truth

3. Establish one point of contact

4. Tell the truth

5. Maintain your message – know what to say, and say only that

6. Tell the truth

7. Know what is, and isn’t, newsworthy

8. Tell the truth

9. Be aware of deadlines

You’ve likely noticed that one rule is so important, it’s in there four times – no matter what you have to say, if it isn’t true, you’ll be found out. It might be within three hours, like it was for ICG. It might be three weeks, three months – but you will be found out, and you’ll have an accelerating disaster on your hands that your business may not survive.

Here are two more real-world examples that show how important the truth is when your company faces a crisis:

In Sept. 1982, a series of deaths in the Midwest were found to be caused by cyanide-tainted Tylenol. In the nation-wide panic that followed, Johnson & Johnson, Tylenol’s manufacturer, responded by recalling all Tylenol products and investigating their manufacturing plants – and keeping the public updated on what they were doing, and what they discovered.

They stated that they recognized this as a public health crisis first, and a company crisis second. Working with the FBI, the FDA and the Chicago Police Department, the company was praised for its honesty with the public during the Tylenol crisis. In 2006 – 24 years later – Tylenol has 35% of the painkiller market in the US.

On Dec. 3, 1984, a Union Carbide chemical plant in Bhopal, India accidentally released a cloud of pesticide – methyl isocyanate – that covered the city.

Over 1,500 people died within 24 hours.

Even though the company deployed a medical team immediately, the company’s statements – via the medical teams on the ground and corporate press appearances – downplayed the effects of the accident. Months later, Union Carbide was still denying that mortality rates were as high as they were being reported in the press.

The company never fully recovered, and was bought out by Dow Chemical ten years later.

Like I said before – tell the truth. It won’t just set you free, it’ll keep you in business.

You should have a media plan in place before you speak to a community calendar newsletter, your local paper’s business editor, a local radio or television reporter, or launch a product or service at a trade show.

It doesn’t matter whether you’re talking to a suburban community paper or the New York Times, having a plan in place gives you the confidence to speak your message, stay on track, and stay in control of your company’s news, and its future.

In the fast-moving, 24-hour spin cycle that is today’s news business, you don’t want to wind up circling the drain, getting caught off guard if your company suddenly becomes newsworthy.

If you’re lucky enough to come up with that fresh take on the mousetrap that has the world, and the media, beating a path to your door, you don’t want to answer the door in your underwear.

By being prepared with a media plan, developed using the guidelines I’ve given you, you’ll answer your door looking (and sounding) sharp, successful and newsworthy.

And you’ll enjoy your ride on the media train, instead of finding yourself ground under its wheels.

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