Lack of empathy slammed

A FEELING of “confusion, fear, anger and a lack of trust” within the community during the Hazelwood mine fire has been attributed to a lack of empathetic communication.

The Hazelwood Mine Fire Inquiry Board said while agencies and authorities provided factual information, it accepted the opinion of two communication experts that the “basic human need for empathy, and expression of concern, care and assurance, were not adequately expressed”.

The report said many people in the community perceived the Chief Health Officer Rosemary Lester’s communications as lacking in empathy and sincerity.

“The Board appreciates that there may have been a number of other factors contributing to this, including a level of pre-existing distrust in government in the region,” the report stated.

“However, the Board does not consider that this distrust accounts for the perceived inadequacy of communication by government agencies and their spokespeople during the Hazelwood mine fire.”

Criticism was also levelled towards the timeliness of communication.

Mine operators GDF SUEZ took 28 days to issue its first press release after the fire began, and Latrobe City Council took 10 days.

GDF SUEZ was also said to be “conspicuous by its absence” regarding public communication throughout the crisis.

It said during the 45 days that the Hazelwood mine fire burned, the company’s communication practices fell well 

short of good communication standards.

“International best practice in crisis communication demonstrates that the central company involved in an emergency should be open, honest, quick to respond and act responsibly. GDF SUEZ did not adopt this approach.

“GDF SUEZ did not publically express its concern other than in a few paid advertisements in the Latrobe Valley Express. The consequence of that the community saw the mine owner and operator as failing it.”

GDF SUEZ group manager of corporate affairs Jim Kouts said with respect to the Inquiry’s findings, the company had 24 hours a day, seven days a week media accessibility and adopted a one voice, one message approach.

Despite this policy approach with the state, he said GDF SUEZ could have engaged in further communication than what they participated in.

“In hindsight we should have sent someone to the community meeting. While you feel the important information is being dealt with, the community wants to hear and see us, not just the CFA,” Mr Kouts said.

The Board’s recommendations include: the State Government to review and revise its communication strategy; the development of a community engagement model for emergency management and GDF SUEZ to improve its crisis management strategy for the Hazelwood mine in line with best practice.