Responding to the press in the wake of an environmental crisis

An accident, such as a leak of industrial chemicals into a lake, or a fuel spill into the ocean, can be as disastrous for the company involved as it is for the environment itself. Not only are such incidents time-consuming and costly to clean up and put right, the press and social media attention, if not handled properly, can have repercussions on the company's reputation for years to come, affecting sales and, ultimately, market share. However, with a little care, and a rapid response, a company can minimise the damage to its image.

Responding to the media mêlée

Environmental crises occur without warning and unfold rapidly, but the ultimate cause of the incident might not be known for many days, or sometimes even longer. In the meantime, though, the media reporting on the accident might well continue to mention one company's name in connection with it, regardless of whether it is responsible. To make matters worse, rumours and accusations can spread like wildfire through modern social media channels, reaching myriad audiences very quickly, and affecting their view of the situation.

In such cases, it can be tempting to stay silent until the cause has been identified, but this can exacerbate the reputational damage and impact on legal proceedings. This is why it is vital that a company communicates with employees and stakeholders through the press and via social media channels as soon as possible to prevent any misinformation circulating.

The organisation needs to be honest in response to any media enquiries, explaining its connection to the incident, such as whether one of its vehicles was involved. If the company does not know the answer to any questions, it should say so without dissembling, and if the responses to any queries are legally sensitive, then this should be stated in an open, matter-of-fact way. It should make use of its social media channels to address any queries and address online rumours as they appear, reducing the risk of them spreading out of control.

While it is important not to accept responsibility before the facts of the case become clear, as this can potentially have legal implications, this doesn't lead to a need to stay silent. To understand what can and can't be communicated, the company must work closely with its PR experts and its legal team throughout the crisis to devise a strategy for communications. The PR team can also initiate a company-wide One Voice Policy to prevent any accidental information leaks, minimising the risk of media and social media confusion and maximising the effectiveness of the crisis communications response.

Constructive communications

At the same time as responding to media enquiries, the company should be devising a proactive communications strategy to reinforce positive brand messaging and mitigate the impact of any negative coverage. This should include a social media plan to prevent misinformation spreading in the digital space, and a comprehensive internal communications programme to allay any fears employees may have about job security, minimising the impact on morale.

If the company is supporting the authorities in a clean-up operation and/or working closely with them in investigating an incident, it should communicate this, as it can help demonstrate the company's concern for the environment in the eyes of the general public.

Other 'good news' stories not related to the incident, such as client wins, product launches, or recruitment, can continue to be released throughout the crisis, but cautiously and with a mind to the overall effect of these messages. Done carefully, this will help reassure nervous investors and other stakeholders that the company is stable, protecting sales and share prices. The organisation's PR experts will be able to develop the most appropriate strategy for both campaigns to maximise their success.

The clean-up

An environmental incident is harmful in a number of ways, both to the local ecosystem and organisations involved. Despite a company's best intentions, accidents do happen, so it is important to be prepared with a comprehensive media strategy devised in conjunction with PR experts. This will help ensure a rapid response in the event of any crisis, cleaning up toxic media coverage before it does real harm.

This information is intended as a general discussion surrounding the topics covered and is for guidance purposes only. It does not constitute legal advice and should not be regarded as a substitute for taking legal advice. DWF is not responsible for any activity undertaken based on this information.