(Similar post also published on emergencymgmt.com)
A few years ago, a friend and board member of my company who was an oil industry executive, talked about “go to jail” jobs. He said a lot of senior leadership positions in the oil industry were now jobs that carried the risk of jail time if things went wrong on their watch.
That was borne out in the first major crisis I was involved in, the Olympic Pipeline accident. The GM of the pipeline company went to jail for six months. This despite the fact that the accident, like many, was caused by a very strange confluence of a number of factors, many of which he had absolutely no control over and which, if they had changed just a bit, would have prevented the accident from happening.
Now I am shocked, appalled and saddened to find out that farmers also have “go to jail” jobs. This article from NBC News tells about the sentencing of two young Colorado farmers from whose farm tainted cantaloupes emerged that resulted in a listeria outbreak that killed 33 people. The farmers narrowly avoided jail time, instead are sentenced to five years probation and a large fine. The reporter/editor of the article clearly feels this was a gross injustice. Look at the headline and focus of the article.
It is a horrible tragedy that 33 people lost their lives, including the 92 year old “spry” victim whose son is so disappointed in the result. If there was intent, if there was criminal negligence, if there was an established pattern of callous disregard for harming others, I could see the calls for treating these farmers as criminals. But, even this very biased article makes it clear there was no intent, no pattern, no callousness. There was a mistake, or mistakes made. The farmers are called “salt of the earth” types.
I will withhold further comment on the sad state of our justice system, and our society, and the state of our media. Instead, this situation requires the attention of anyone who is in a business or government position where action or inaction could harm others. And that is a lot of you.
First, the lesson clearly is to look at all your plans and procedures and make certain you are doing all you can to prevent such things from happening. That is the value of such a great tragedy and the shocking outcome. Preventive measures will greatly reduce the risk, but not eliminate it. And when, despite your best efforts, something goes horribly wrong, what do you do?
This situation creates a dilemma for crisis communications. In the pipeline accident the company was “lawyered up” to the max. But, it made sense despite the severe impact on reputation. The company went bankrupt, but gasoline continues to flow through the pipe. Now farmers and others have to look at the legal implications when something goes wrong. A sincere apology with acceptance of responsibility is absolutely necessary to avoid turning the media and public against you. And a highly negative public atmosphere is just what a plaintiff’s attorney or prosecuting attorney wants when selecting a jury. So, it makes sense to be transparent, empathetic and forthcoming. But, such admission in our great nation, is going to be used against you in court. So, you end up walking a very fine line–or saying nothing.
There are two preventive measures to consider right now. One, we already talked about, which is preventing bad things from happening. The other, recognizing that all risks can’t be eliminated, is building reputation equity before something bad happens. I commented on this on Rich Klein’s “The Crisis Show” last week looking at the very different press coverage and social media comment about Freedom Industries vs. International Nutrition. Both had tragedies–one of them involving fatalities. But it was the company without the fatalities that took by far the greatest beating. It’s worthwhile looking at why that may be.