Mine fire message lost in translation

Communication experts have labelled GDF SUEZ’s failure to attend public meetings during the Hazelwood mine fire a symbolic message that they didn’t care.

Professor of Public Communications at the University of Technology Sydney, James Macnamara, and Redhanded communications consultancy director Lachlan Drummond provided a joint report to the Hazelwood Board of Inquiry addressing the company’s and government’s communication efforts on Thursday.

Professor Macnamara said the “golden rule of all communication” was to be quick, consistent and open, standing up, talking and engaging with people.

He told the inquiry he read the explanation of why GDF SUEZ did not attend some of the public meetings and found it was not a sufficient reason.

“Even if you’re standing there and saying, visibly, ‘we’re supporting the authorities, we’re working with the authorities’, so the visibility of the company sends the message that they might have been caring, but the message is, they didn’t,” Professor Macnamara said.

“Not being present can speak volumes in many cases. It’s interpreted as silence and silence tends to be interpreted as guilt. Rightly or wrongly, that’s how humans work.”

Professor Macnamara told the inquiry GDF Suez’s full-page newspaper advertisements also lacked an expression of concern or empathy, apart from “we understand the inconvenience”.

He then criticised the company’s ‘Revive Morwell’ campaign, which provided $100 handouts to Morwell households to spend locally.

“Again, if people are no longer trusting and people are angry, I tend to find money doesn’t get you out of trouble, money can even backfire,” Professor Macnamara said.

GDF SUEZ counselor Peter Riordan told the inquiry that Professor Macnamara failed to understand public concern for the town’s businesses.

He said the initiative was intended for the purposes of business promotion, and never for the purpose of compensation.

The communication expert’s report was also critical of the State Government’s communication strategies, such as, repetitive communications via EPA smoke advisories and a 10-day lapse before government had adequate crisis communication and management measures in place.

Mr Drummond told the inquiry of a “disconnect” between what the community was seeing during the fire and the authorities’ communication actions.

He said while the community could reasonably interpret a serious incident with firefighters being treated for carbon monoxide and CFA crews for toxic gas, the chief health officer, Dr Rosemary Lester, said there was no need to evacuate and “we’re seeking further advice”.

“What we have on the one hand is anxiety, fear and concern and a genuine belief that they’re dealing with a serious issue, and that doesn’t match with the message being sent out by the relevant authorities; that is, ‘take minor precautions, just enact your asthma management plan’,” Mr Drummond said.

Mr Drummond summarised the community feeling with an excerpt from community member Lisa Wilson’s statement: “I am well-educated and have travelled, yet my experiences during this period made me feel stupid and disheartened.”