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How Construction Firms Can Avoid a Public Relations Disaster

A disaster at a production plant shows the need for greater communication.

Thu April 02, 2015 - National Edition
Brian M. Fraley

This incident in Morgantown reflected a grossly deficient public relations effort because they neglected to communicate with their neighbors.
This incident in Morgantown reflected a grossly deficient public relations effort because they neglected to communicate with their neighbors.

It was a typical Friday night and I had settled in with a book to wind down before bedtime. My wife and kids were asleep. At about 11:15, I heard a boom that sent a vibration through the frame of the home. It was similar to the sound my son makes when he jumps out of bed, but louder. I checked upstairs and outside. All was quiet.

My wife woke up and checked a community group on Facebook. Panicked mothers from as far as seven miles away lit up the feed with talk of an explosion of some sort. One woman even reported that her couch jumped off the floor.

It turned out that an explosion had occurred at a local metal production plant, killing one worker and injuring a few others. This same plant had an explosion in 2012, and a three-alarm fire that triggered an explosion in 2013. Local residents already had concerns about this operation because it has several active smokestacks and bangs large hunks of metal around 24/7.

To provide context, Morgantown has become a bedroom community for primarily young families that work in the Philadelphia area. Many of the newer subdivisions were built in close proximity to existing industrial facilities. Perhaps too close. It is also true that the core material in use at the facility in question is Titanium, which can be explosive.

There is much to be learned here for the construction industry, especially for construction firms, construction equipment suppliers, and material suppliers who often have neighbors in close proximity. Whether it be blasting in a quarry or a jobsite, moving equipment around the shop, or concerns about groundwater pollution by leaking equipment, the construction industry faces similar community relations challenges.

The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) defines Public Relations as “a strategic communication process that builds mutually beneficial relationships between organizations and their publics.” As a business, your “publics” often include residential neighbors.

This incident in Morgantown reflected a grossly deficient public relations effort because they neglected to communicate with their neighbors. It’s important to note that this resident never once heard this firm communicate with the community in the wake of the previous two incidents. The community interprets that as a complete disregard for its well-being, and that’s not good because it results in negative word-of-mouth, scrutiny by government officials, and more ways of damaging your reputation.

Compounding the problem, Channel 69 News reported a statement by the company’s president: "We are deeply saddened by the loss of an employee and the injury of several others, and our thoughts are with them and their families. Our first focus is to ensure the safety of employees and support the affected families.”

The obvious question here is, what about the safety of the neighbors? What about the children that were nestled in their beds within several hundred yards of this explosion? What if the explosion hadn’t been contained and fragmentation had gone airborne.

This facility has rapidly expanded to the point that it consumes a block within the business park. The possibility of a chain reaction explosion is a very real possibility. There is also a natural gas trunk line in immediate proximity that bisects two subdivisions with more than 500 homes.

The point is that this incident and this facility pose a real and present danger to the neighbors. Public relations, when done right, communicates with all of the “publics.” That means reaching out to the neighbors to explain within reason why the incident occurred and what contingencies are being implemented to prevent the issue in the future. This is an issue of public safety and common courtesy.

Some of the greatest lessons are learned by watching the shortcomings of others. The construction industry can learn some valuable lessons here. You know that accidents happen. What is your public relations strategy if, God forbid, an accident occurs at your plant or on your jobsite that causes fatalities? Construction is about mitigating risk. Make sure you’re ready to respond swiftly and directly at all times…to all of your “publics.”

Brian Fraley is the founder, manager, and chief strategist for Fraley AEC Solutions, LLC, a marketing communications firm that builds solutions on a foundation of industry understanding for the Architecture, Engineering, and Construction (AEC) marketplace. He authors the AEC Marketing InSITE Newsletter and the AEC Straight Talker Blog, and can be found on LinkedIn, Twitter, and Google+. Brian is also the author of the soon to be published e-book, "Designing an A/E Brand That Drives Selections."

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