HOW A GOOD COMPANY MANAGES A BAD SITUATION: THE VERDIGRIS RIVER OIL SPILL
compiled by Agri Marketing Editors
The oil spill threatened to destroy Farmland’s reputation as a company that is committed to doing the right thing. And this threat extended beyond Coffeyville, Kansas, to every store selling Farmland-branded food products, and to every community where the local co-ops do business. "Proud to be farmer-owned" is more than Farmland’s tagline, it’s a way of doing business.
"Farmland is owned by more than 600,000 farmers and we take very seriously the obligation to protect the reputation of our farmer-owners," says Sherlyn Manson, Farmland director of corporate communications.
The Farmland/FH crisis communications team worked around the clock, alongside Farmland emergency response crews, on the cleanup effort. Headed by Manson and Daren Williams, vice president of Fleishman-Hillard/Kansas City, the crisis communications team played an integral role in Farmland’s crisis response from coordinating water supply efforts to meeting with local officials and state regulatory agencies.
This is the story of how communications played a key role in helping a good company manage a bad situation.
NO WATER IN NOWATA
At 8:40 p.m. on the night of Tuesday, November 17, Sheriff Jack Daniels notified the Farmland refinery that area residents had reported the smell of oil coming from the river. Farmland crews responded immediately to stop the leak, but not before 800 barrels (approx. 33,600 gal.) of crude oil had escaped into the river and headed towards Lake Oologah, a key drinking water source for more than 700,000 residents of Tulsa. By morning, the slick extended 25 miles from the refinery to U.S. Highway 60, where crews stretched booms across the river to capture the oil.
"Farmland efforts were successful in stopping the oil from reaching the Tulsa water supply," Manson says. "However, the leak did affect several small communities along the river. The hardest hit was Nowata, Oklahoma. Nowata’s water intake was shut down for two days as a precautionary measure, causing the city’s water reserves to run low."
Anticipating this problem, the crisis communications team arranged for Farmland transportation to provide trucks to haul water from nearby cities. As residents watched newscasts predicting that they would have "no water in Nowata," a convoy of Farmland trucks arrived with thousands of gallons of water to replenish the city water tank.
GOOD COMPANY, BAD SITUATION
The morning after the spill, the crisis communications team flew to Coffeyville to establish an on-site communications center. Once on site, the team developed the core messages and conducted a message-training session with Farmland spokespeople as TV crews from Tulsa were en route to the scene. "It was readily apparent that despite the remote location of the cleanup site, the media was eager to cover the story," Williams says. "By noon, satellite crews from all three Tulsa network affiliates were broadcasting live."
Over a period of three days, Farmland spokespeople conducted dozens of interviews with three satellite media crews from Tulsa which were providing live coverage from the scene, as well as local radio and print reporters. "Farmland was accessible, open, and honest with the media at all times," he says.
Back in Kansas City, Fleishman-Hillard maintained hourly media monitoring during the cleanup effort, including broadcast, print, and the Internet. The crisis communications team continuously evaluated the coverage to assess how Farmland’s messages were being received and to determine course corrections, if necessary. During the first 48 hours, Farmland issued three press releases to local and regional media, documenting the cleanup effort and communicating the key messages.
The morning after the spill, as soon as the extent had been determined, Farmland released an initial statement to the media. "Farmland responds quickly to crude oil release" focused on the company’s quick response and cooperation with authorities in the cleanup effort.
"That night, we issued a release headlined ‘Farmland continues round-the-clock cleanup effort on Verdigris River’ focusing on the ‘relentless’ effort to clean up the oil and pledge to provide water to affected communities," Williams says. The release was used widely in the following day’s news coverage, including an AP story filed in Tulsa.
The next day, when the "all clear" was given for Nowata, Farmland met with City Manager Nancy Shipley to offer communications assistance. With Shipley’s approval and direct quotes, the team issued a release headlined "Nowata Water Supply Back to Normal."
GARNERING THIRD-PARTY SUPPORT
During the cleanup effort, Farmland government-relations staff made personal phone calls to more than 41 federal, state, and local elected officials, and nine state agricultural organizations in Kansas, Missouri, and Oklahoma to gauge their reaction to the situation and inform them about Farmland’s cleanup efforts.
"The on-site communications team also maintained constant contact with state and federal regulatory officials whom, by law, can ‘take over’ if not satisfied with the cleanup," Williams says. "So, when the team learned that state and federal regulatory officials were meeting in Tulsa to review the cleanup operations, we arranged for Farmland officials to attend, although originally not invited."
At this critical meeting, Farmland reported on the status of the cleanup and voluntarily committed to conduct an ongoing environmental monitoring program. Following the meeting, regulatory officials determined that no intervention was necessary.
"One of the key measures of success was to determine if the communications efforts were successful in convincing local residents and community leaders that Farmland was doing everything possible to minimize the impact on their communities," Williams says. "Based on the tone of media coverage, that message came through loud and clear."
Target audiences read or saw Farmland’s messages in more than 50 broadcast and print news stories and Farmland’s "minimize the impact" message was repeated in at least 15 print and 20 broadcast stories. Farmland received "high marks" (KOTV News at Six, 11/20/98) from local residents in media coverage. The Tulsa World reported that Nowata City Manager Nancy Shipley "echoed Department of Environmental Quality’s (DEQ) praise for Farmland, saying the company has cooperated fully."
"Another critical success factor was the program’s effort to convince regulatory agencies and elected officials that government intervention in the cleanup effort was not necessary," Williams says. "By all indications, this was a major success."
In fact, an Oklahoma DEQ official quoted in Tulsa World ("DEQ smiles on cleanup efforts," 12/1/98) said, "I couldn’t be more satisfied... or pleased" with Farmland’s efforts. In written and verbal correspondence, elected officials were very complimentary of how the Farmland team handled the situation, particularly the spokesperson’s "exceptional ability to address the media and the public."
Three days into the cleanup effort, regulatory officials determined that intervention was not required. Most importantly, the communication’s effort was successful in protecting Farmland’s "right to do business" at the refinery in Coffeyville. In fact, plans to expand the facility to nearly double its size are moving forward on schedule. AM