By Alex Liddington-Cox
In April 2006, a small earthquake in the Australian town of Beaconsfield resulted in a mine collapse that claimed the life of goldminer Larry Knight. The subsequent effort to rescue who two surviving colleagues, Todd Russell and Brant Webb, fixed the world’s attention on the small Tasmanian town.
In the first part of a new series from Crisis Shield, we take a look back at one of Australia’s biggest stories. How the media turned on its stakeholders, and itself, in search of the best angle, how an information vacuum helped quicken one man’s path to the prime ministership and how today’s technology would make safety a completely different proposition.
As big as Port Arthur
Hundreds of journalists flew to Beaconsfield (population 1215, Census 2006) to cover the story. Constable Phil Pike and Channel Seven reporter Peter Morris were both present for the Port Arthur Massacre, which occurred almost 10 years to the day before Beaconsfield, less than four hours’ drive away. Both agree the media interest was as big at Beaconsfield, if not bigger, than Port Arthur.
“Melissa Doyle and David Koch presented Sunrise from a steep bank overlooking the mine while Nine’s Karl Stefanovic did his crosses to the Today show in front of the impressive brick facades of the Grubb and Hart shaft,” wrote Pike in The Australian Journal of Emergency Management (August, 2006).
“In the evenings Tracey Grimshaw and Naomi Robson presented their respective current affairs shows from the same locations. Under the only barbecue shelter, Channel Ten and SBS presented their news and ABC shared the muddy bank with Channel Seven. Local ABC Radio moved quickly and hired the local St John Ambulance hall nearby.”
Breakfast television is often done on location. But it takes a monumental event to get the evening news anchors away from the authority of the news desk. See below for Peter Hitchener’s opening to Nine’s evening news broadcast on the day the miners were released below.
Just about every Australian media asset that could be mobilised to cover the story was. Unsurprisingly, this meant there was intense competition for the best story and coverage.
Three flashpoints of dirty media tricks stand out as case studies for how the media can turn on its stakeholders and itself.
A Channel Nine news reporter was offering rescue workers $10,000 to take a video camera into the mine and film the rescue. This resulted in a pause to the rescue operation while bags were searched.
Channel Seven mounted a camera on a teleboom that the network often raised over the rear fence of the mine yard to see the site.
News Limited was also busted after a webcam placed in a location that wasn’t approved was traced back to them.
The unruly media were one of many stakeholders that needed to be kept abreast of events to varying degrees.
Other organisations included The Beaconsfield Mine Joint Venture (management and staff), Allstate Explorations NL (the managing body of the Beaconsfield Mine), The West Tamar Council, Tasmania Police and emergency services, Department of Justice (Coroner’s Office), Workplace Standards, Chief Inspector of Mines, Australian Workers’ Union, Tasmanian Minerals Council, Launceston General Hospital, the missing miners, their families and the wider West Tamar Community.
BMJV baulks, Shorten talks
Compounding this bandwidth problem was the Beaconsfield Mine Joint Venture’s (BMJV) initial handling of the press was poor. The company generated media releases via a Sydney-based communications specialist and used the media contact stream via Tasmania Police Media and Marketing. There was no point of contact at the mine.
This resulting information vacuum was filled by the Australian Workers Union and then national secretary Bill Shorten. From the beginning, the AWU made sure it was always available to the media for briefings and comment, building rapport and trust with the press that helped turn Bill Shorten into “the public face of the Beaconsfield mine disaster”.
He was comfortably elected to the Australian parliament the following year.
Crisis communications has changed irrevocably since the Beaconsfield disaster. Just look at the strategies of skulduggery by the journalists with bribery, mounted cameras and webcams.
Today, every member of your organisation has a smartphone that can take broadcast quality footage. Once your staff have the footage, journalists don’t need to entice them to release it. They’re often all too eager to release the footage on Facebook and Twitter. At the time of Beaconsfield, Facebook had less than 12 million users, while Twitter was one month old.
But in another sense, it hasn’t changed at all. Crisis communications is about handling an event of heightened public interest. If people are watching, and you don’t get your message and brand out there, someone else will repurpose the crisis for their own ends.
In this case, BMJV’s slow communication response left an open door for the AWU and Bill Shorten to control the narrative.