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HOW A GOOD COMPANY MANAGES A BAD SITUATION: THE VERDIGRIS RIVER OIL SPILL
Sherlyn Manson, Farmland dir. of corp. communications
A midnight phone call awoke the Farmland/Fleishman-Hillard crisis communications team. The news was bad. A major environmental disaster had struck at Farmland’s oil refinery in Coffeyville, Kansas. A pipeline ruptured, sending hundreds of barrels of crude oil into the Verdigris River in southeastern Kansas.

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.

Daren Williams, VP of Fleishmann-Hillard / Kansas City
The oil spill couldn’t have come at a worse time for the Coffeyville refinery, where tensions were already high in the community. Urban sprawl had pushed neighborhoods up against the refinery, and now those neighbors were claiming that the refinery was driving down property values and causing health problems. Two class-action lawsuits seeking millions in damages threatened to shut down the $1.1 billion operation, or nearly one-tenth of the co-op’s $11.9 billion annual sales.

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



Crews worked round-the-clock to contain and clean up more than 800 barrels of oil that had leaked into the Verdigris River in order to minimize the impact on the environment and communities along the river.
The objective of the communications effort was to distinguish a good company from a bad situation. "As with the cleanup effort itself, Farmland was determined to do ‘whatever it takes’ to protect the reputation of the company and preserve the ‘right to do business’ at the refinery," Williams recounts. "The key was to convince local residents, community leaders, state and federal regulatory agencies, and elected officials that Farmland was doing everything possible to minimize the impact on the environment and the affected communities. We had to convince these audiences that government intervention in the cleanup was not necessary."

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.

MEASURING SUCCESS



Absorbent booms trapped much of the oil under the Highway 60 bridge over the Verdigris River in Northeastern Oklahoma as the Farmland/FH crisis communications team worked to keep the media up to date on the cleanup effort.
By Friday evening, less than 72 hours after the spill, the success of Farmland’s crisis communications effort became apparent. That night, Tulsa’s CBS affiliate, KOTV 6, ran a three-and-one-half minute segment which concluded that Farmland had "done everything right" and was "already winning" in the court of public opinion (see sidebar). In just three days, the Farmland/Fleishman-Hillard crisis communications team turned a negative story about an oil spill into a positive story about the cleanup effort.

"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




Following is a transcript of a news broadcast from Tulsa’s KOTV Channel 6, one of three network TV crews from Tulsa that covered the oil spill live for three straight days in November 1998. When the Farmland/Fleishman-Hillard crisis communications team first met KOTV reporter Donn Robertson, the reception was cold. After three days of "care and feeding" of the media, KOTV ran this report.

ANCHOR: They’re still cleaning up oil on the Verdigris River. Despite Tuesday night’s spill that swept down the river from Kansas, some residents along the Verdigris say the company that caused the spill is doing a good job of trying to clean it up. The News on Six’s Donn Robertson has more on the cleanup effort and why many folks are giving the Farmland Company high marks.

REPORTER: Some of the oil is still trapped in the major barrier on the Verdigris River as workers continue the cleanup effort. But Nowata residents have tapped back into the river for drinking water. Despite that good news, the town’s grocery stores are prepared if results from constant testing show any sign that the system is polluted. Mark Blum says he didn’t buy any bottled water, because he’s not worried about contamination.

MARK BLUM, Nowata: I think it will be clean once they get it through the lines. The purification plant will work fine as far as clearing it up.

REPORTER: We talked to several people in Nowata and everyone we spoke with shares a similar opinion about the company responsible for the spill, Kansas City-based Farmland Industries.

UNIDENTIFIED, Resident: I think they’re doing a pretty good job cleaning up.

REPORTER: Farmland is now working on Lake Oologah to skim off the small amount of oil that slipped through the six barriers on the river. The company has been cleaning up around the clock since Tuesday’s spill.

RICK LAURENTIUS, Farmland Manager: We’ll not be leaving here until we have it cleaned up.

REPORTER: Company leaders say their concern isn’t the cost of the cleanup, or possible fines, but helping those affected. This Tulsa public relations expert says the company has done everything right, so far.

STEVE TURNBO, Public Relations Consultant: Those companies that stand up and accept responsibility and say we’re going to deal with this, we’ve made a mistake, we’re trying to fix it, will win in the court of public opinion.

REPORTER: According to some residents, such as Mark Blum, the company is already winning.

BLUM: I think it’s wonderful we’ve had all this work to get it taken care of.

REPORTER: Even after the cleanup is over, the company’s job will continue. Officials say they’ll continue to monitor the environment every year just to make sure a bad situation doesn’t get worse. Donn Robertson, the News on Six.

ANCHOR: Wildlife officials say they haven’t seen any signs of big fish kills or other dead animals, but they add it’s too early to tell what the final cost to the environment will be. AM




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