You don't need a crisis communications expert to explain why this "company rep" is an idiot. Fortunately, the West Virginia Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management taped the conversation, in which Freedom Industries' Bob Reynolds jokes then incorrectly reports the infamous Jan. 9 spill that left 300,000 people without water. Media relations consultants will make millions of dollars playing Reynold's tape to bemused clients who can't possibly imagine they, too might be clueless enough to laugh on the phone with a hotline operator. Or not even remember the full name of the offending chemical. Or provide completely inaccurate information about containment measures and the toxicity of the chemical whose name you cannot spell.
This is just the most-blatant example of how things can go south, quicky, in an emergency situation involving police, media, the U.S. Coast Guard, Homeland Security, etc. My colleagues in Big Oil will observe this is the reason they train their executives thoroughly in JIC protocol. And coach first-responders to death in the art of giving credible TV interviews.
As a PR specialist who's served in JIC's, managed media on the scene of an "incident," and served up all kinds of press releases and briefing statements, I would argue this: Effective crisis communications and media relations begins with controlling all communications to the public. Thou shalt not contact anyone before carefully crafting a statement and vetting it through more-responsible layers of company management (hint: your environmental experts) and - most importantly - lawyers.
Was Freedom Enterprises really such a small company that it didn't know how to handle this crisis? We'll find out. The company has filed for bankruptcy and the U.S. attorney's office in Chicago is investigating.
Meanwhile, good luck if your business is next up with a highly visible incident affecting thousands of people. With each episode like this, everyone's credibility erodes just that much more.