Ethics of corporate spin in work safety

October 8, 2019 Mining Editor

Exploring the ethics of corporate spin when it comes to workplace safety. John Ninness takes a look at the relationship between corporate spin in work safety and highlights that it has the potential to have a damaging effect on the prevention of other incidents across and industry.

John writes…..There’s an old saying coined by American writer Mark Twain ‘don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.’

This has been bandied around the halls of government and throughout the mining industry for many, many years.

While many tend to laugh it off as a playful expression and, at times, a license to tell a white lie, it may have sinister implications when it comes to safety and the prevention of accidents and incidents across the industry.

In the aftermath of incidents, particularly those of a fatal nature, there is often a range of rhetoric delivered by corporate leaders and their spin doctors to obfuscate the incident itself.

Sometimes depersonalising incidents and the obfuscating incident details or, worse still, withholding information from an incident that could prevent similar occurrences, may border on ‘perverse’ and ‘morally bereft’ corporate behaviour.

There is a difference between a good ethical strategy and marketing spin when it comes to the aspects of communicating safety, particularly following a workplace tragedy.

“Conditions may exist where governmental mine safety regulators or mine safety organisations utilise ‘spin’ processes to create perceptions that industry mine safety practice is fundamentally sound.”

On the surface, it appears, at least, timely prevention of the recurrence of incidents may have become murky territory for both government’s and industry alike with some regulators loathing to release information that could potentially damage the reputation of the regulator and/or its clients in the industry.

Could an eroding ethical public relations landscape for mine safety be occurring in the industry? Is the corporate-speak distancing itself from reality when it comes to mining safety incidents?

A range of standardised public relations approaches to managing a tragedy in the Queensland mining industry have been evident over the past several months following the deaths of mineworkers.

The variety of responses to the tragedies, including those of total silence, obfuscation, admission, denial and shifting of responsibility.

“It seems, in some cases, that upholding one’s corporate reputation and image has crept its way ahead of the important issues following a death of a worker including those of provisioning for families and co-workers of the deceased, providing for periods of mourning and prevention of recurrence across the industry.”

JOHN NINNESS

While it’s recognised that following the death or injury of a worker requires following legal processes, there is also a range of ethical approaches that may, at first, seem incongruent with advice from the legal team or those whose corporate reputations may be damaged from the incident.

The following paragraphs will briefly examine the practices of public relations professionals in the context of fatalities and tragedies, and further explore the issues surrounding public relations ethics and its potential impacts on industry safety performance.

Defining ethics in public relations

In some small way, corporate relations ethics may appear as an oxymoron. As with any organisation or profession, there exists an ethical spectrum in which that organisation or individual may choose to operate.

For some less scrupulous organisations and practitioners, corporate relations practice has amounted to manipulation of the facts and propaganda that may be supported by a mix of truth or deception. The ‘smoke and mirrors’ approach is known globally as a form of effective public relations.

The practice of ethics involves systemising, defending and recommending concepts of right and wrong behaviour (IEP, 2019). We see definitions of ethics typically have in common the elements of requiring some form of systematic analysis, distinguishing right from wrong, and determining the nature of what should be valued.

In the public relations discipline, ethics may include values such as honesty, openness, loyalty, fair-mindedness, respect, integrity, and forthright communication. Of course, the role of organisational social conscience is also intertwined with internal public relations professionals.

There is always a range of conjecture when it comes to ethics in public relations. One can always argue that there are many angles to a story. The line of obfuscation, deception and derailment of public debate on important issues can seem murky, and one that corporate spinners are all too well aware of when they start weaving a storyline.

The critical question is whether it is ethical to save the organisation’s ‘skin’ or reputation when it has potentially damaging effects for others? Is it correct to apply theories of manipulation to protect an organisation’s reputation?

Why do corporations respond to tragic events anyway?

A response to a tragic event in an organisation is often viewed as a systematic response that is typically based around research in minimising organisational impacts and reputational damage.

The need to respond may be rooted in the need to shelter or restore reputation (Benoit, 1997; De Raaf, 2000; Sturges, 1994). A response to a tragic incident can be viewed as an external means to demonstrate social legitimacy for an organisation or come from a basis of organisational values. Organisations create a perception that it cares about its actions and applies an altruistic approach to its behaviour despite the illegitimacy of the action that resulted in the tragedy.

Public relations practitioners may see a work-related tragedy can invariably destroy previous work of building a company’s reputation and legitimacy.

While personally remorseful, many public relations practitioners know a tragedy can annihilate a corporate reputation instantly due to the focus of negative connotations on the incident.

There is a tendency to apply a range of textbook solutions that work from a PR perspective but, ultimately isolate professional safety practice to a silo, often external to the circumstances.

Since news media tends to emphasise crises, especially when their impact makes them newsworthy events for journalists (Heath, 1998), it justifies a response to adverse events through the lens of self-interest and protecting reputation.

What are the range of public relations responses post-incident?

Like safety professionals use methods to apply and determine risk, public relations professionals also use a range of approaches to control or manipulate responses in crises. Bill Benoit (1995; 1997) conducted significant research to identify the reputation repair strategies in organisations. Coombs (2007) integrated the work of Benoit with others to create a master list that integrates various findings and responses to scenarios. 

 They include:

  • Attack the accuser: Organisation confronts the person or group claiming something is wrong;
  • Denial: Organisation asserts there is no crisis;
  • Scapegoat: Organisation blames a person or group outside of the organisation;
  • Excuse: Organisation minimises responsibility by denying intent to harm and/or claiming an inability to control events that triggered the crisis through:
    •    Provocation: Crisis was a result of a response to someone else’s actions
    •    Defeasibility: Lack of information about events leading to the crisis
    •    Accidental: Lack of control over events leading to the crisis
    •    Good intention: Organisation meant to do well.
  • Justification: Organisation minimises the perceived damage caused by the disaster
  • Reminder: Organisation tells stakeholders about the past good work done
  • Ingratiation: Organisation praises stakeholders for their actions
  • Compensation: Organisation offers money or other gifts to victims
  • Apology: Organisation indicates it takes full responsibility for the crisis and asks stakeholders for forgiveness.

Additionally, public relations professionals may apply the learnings of attribution theory to the incident. The theory supposes that people attempt to understand the behaviour of others by attributing feelings, beliefs, and intentions to them. Generally, it is accepted that people either attribute responsibility for the event to the situation or the person in the situation.

Attributions typically generate a range of emotions and affect how people interact with those involved in the event.

Crises are considered negative, create damage or threaten damage and are often sudden, so they create attributions of responsibility.

If people blame the organisation, anger is subsequently created, and people react negatively toward the organisation. Three negative reactions to attributing crisis responsibility to an organisation have been documented including more damage to an organisation’s reputation, reduced purchase intentions and increased likelihood of engaging in negative word-of-mouth (Coombs, 2007; Coombs & Holladay, 2006).

An organisation can, therefore, respond according to the degree of attribution and type of crisis.

Crisis types and reputational threats

Effective public relations crisis management follows a two-step process to assess the reputational threat of a crisis. (Coombes, 2014) First, the primary crisis type must be determined. A public relations professional may consider how the news media and other stakeholders define the crisis. Coombs and Holladay (2002) had respondents evaluate crisis types based on the attribution of crisis responsibility. They distilled this data to group the basic crises according to the reputational threat each one posed.

Examples include:

  • Victim: Minimal crisis responsibility
  • Natural disaster: Acts of nature such as cyclones or earthquakes
  • Rumour: False and damaging information being circulated about the organisation
  • Workplace violence: Attack involving a former or current employee with another employee on-site
  • Product tampering/malevolence: External agent causes damage to the organisation
  • Accident: Low crisis responsibility
  • Challenge: Stakeholder claims the organisation is operating in an inappropriate manner
  • Technical-error accidents: Equipment or technology failure that cause an industrial accident
  • Technical-error product harm: Equipment or technology failure that causes a product to be defective or potentially harmful
  • Preventable: Strong crisis responsibility
  • Human-error accidents: Industrial accident caused by human error
  • Human-error product harm: Product is defective or potentially harmful due to human error
  • Organisational misdeed: Management actions that put stakeholders at risk and/or violate the law.

The lower order of responsibility, precisely human error and organisational misdeed, are most likely to apply to workplace tragedies. Where organisations are clearly held responsible for a crisis, then a comprehensive repair strategy must follow.

Below we have listed a set of crisis communication best practices that have been derived from attribution theory-based research in Situational Crisis Communication Theory (Coombs, 2007, Coombs & Holladay, 1996; Coombs & Holladay, 2001; Coombs & Holladay, 2006).

The theory argues that any crisis with victims must have a base response that provides instructions on how stakeholders can protect themselves physically from a crisis and a care response to help stakeholders cope psychologically with a crisis (Claeys, Cauberghe & Vyncke, 2010; Cooley & Cooley, 2011; Coombs, 2007).

Attribution theory-based crisis communication best practices


1. victims or potential victims should receive instructing information, including recall information. This is half of the base response to a crisis

2. victims should be provided with an expression of sympathy, any information about corrective actions and trauma counselling or the Employee Assistance Program when needed. This can be called the “care response.” This is the second half of the base response to a crisis

3. instructing information and care response is sufficient for crises with minimal attributions of crisis responsibility and no intensifying factors

4. add excuse and/or justification strategies to the instructing information and care response for crises with minimal attributions of crisis responsibility and an intensifying element

5. add excuse and/or justification strategies to the instructing information and care response for crises with low attributions of crisis responsibility and no intensifying factors

6. add compensation and/or apology strategies to the instructing information and care response for crises with low attributions of crisis responsibility and an intensifying factor

7. add compensation and/or apology strategies to the instructing information and care response for crises with strong attributions of crisis responsibility

8. compensation strategy is used any time victims suffer serious harm

9. reminder and ingratiation strategies can be used to supplement any response

10. denial and attack the accuser strategies are best used only for rumour and challenge crises.

How can corporate spin doctor theory damage industry work safety?

There are, at least, a range of scenarios where public relations theories can obfuscate the key issues, damage industry safety and/or create unwanted comfort levels in the industry in respect to safety performance.

Corporate spin-doctoring in government safety institutions

Conditions may exist where government safety regulators or safety organisations utilise ‘spin’ processes to create perceptions that industry safety practice is fundamentally sound when, in fact, there is a range of performance deviations underlying safe performance that are subverted or overtly manipulated.

Governmental practice and reporting typically measure success in safety performance in terms of the absence of outcomes, such as accidents, injuries, illnesses or diseases (Arezes & Miguel 2003).

Isolated reliance on lag indicators such as Lost Time Injury Frequency Rate (LTIFR) to performance has frequently been debunked by safety academics.

Outcome indicators are known to be subject to random variation, meaning even a stable safety system will produce a variable number of injury events (Stricoff, 2003). The lag measures seldom capture work-related injury and disease and are frequently manipulated by organisations to avoid reporting (Hopkins, 1995).

While there is clearly no single reliable factor for measuring safety performance in an industry that captures both lead and lag indicators and triangulates their performance against known workers, compensation data is a viable alternative for governments to use in industry reporting.

Notable events involving the creation of false perceptions include the outcomes of the 2017 Queensland Black Lung White Lies Inquiry where the committee found “there has been a catastrophic failure, at almost every level of the regulatory system, intended to protect [the] health and safety of coal workers in Queensland.”

Yet previous Queensland Governments and their bureaucracies heralded their successes through the spin in mine safety highlighted from the year 2003. 

“The Queensland Mining Industry recorded one of its best-ever mine and quarry safety performances during the 2002-03 financial year,” Mines Minister Stephen Robertson said. 

Again, in 2006 then Mines Minister Henry Palaszczuk said in a statement, “Queensland’s mining safety standards are among the best in the world and have significantly improved since the 1994 Moura mining disaster.

Despite the state boasting about its reputation and lost time injury performance through media spin, there were workers who had been diagnosed with black lung and several had been killed through mining-related accidents.

Creating a perception that “everything is okay” through government ‘spin’ ended with tragic circumstances. It is now acknowledged that workers were being ‘dusted’ in the years where the government was spinning its success in mine safety. Black lung victims now total around 105.

Meanwhile, governments have used defensive processes through blocking freedom of information requests (Right to Information, RTI) (Knaus & Bassano, 2019)( Easton, 2018) on safety concerns as a means to subvert information that may lead to embarrassment of departmental officers or even a government itself.

Releasing information through RTI can be blocked under a range of conditions including that they might infringe on security, law enforcement, public safety, privacy or other human rights.

It is frequently the case regarding mine safety information, where governments may block information on the basis of the matter being ‘under investigation.’ The period of investigation can extend, in the case of North Goonyella Mine fire, to almost 12 months.

In failing to adopt principles of transparency in mine safety, governments may exclude timely information that has the capacity to prevent ‘like’ incidents or conditions across the broader industry.

As the industry emerges and new employees participate in the industry, new industry participants often discover lessons from the past through ad-hoc processes including social media, involvement in trade unions or industry associations.

In fact, some timely lessons are deeply hidden in government documents or bureaucracies.

By failing to make timely information available to the public and industry surrounding known or emerging hazardous conditions, a government may inadvertently become part of an industry’s safety problem rather than a solution.

While moral obligation of sharing accident and incident information in order to prevent recurrence is obvious, the legal requirements are less so. Consider the legal and political implications of government in a tragedy if it failed to share known information on prevention of that tragedy.

Corporate spin doctors in work safety

Understanding the organisation must protect its reputation, is fundamental to its survival of post-disaster events. Some methods employed by corporate spin in work safety are potentially insular of safety systems, operational processes and the fundamental requirement that organisations and/or industries gain from learning the lessons of tragic events.

Operational systems rely on iterative Planning, Doing, Checking and Acting (Moen & Norman, 2009), Six Sigma or other double-loop learning processes to continuously improve.  In particular, learning from tragic circumstances must occur in a short time frame lest the events are repeated.

The crisis management approach should adopt a holistic process where obligations in respect of legal, reputational, operational, industry and safety performance are thoughtfully considered in view of the learnings for self and others.

Ethical considerations regarding sharing or communicating critical, safety-related information are clearly evident. Socially responsible corporations adopt practices that consider the moral obligations and societal benefits in the wake of the disaster.

Subsequently, identification of ways the organisation can contribute to the greater good of society and an industry’s safety performance may also be an indicator of organisational maturity with respect to values-based safety culture and practice in the industry.

Unfortunately, evidence of past mine disaster inquiries including those tragedies of Moura, Kianga and Appin have pointed to actions that covert interrupted processes sought to gloss over past mistakes.

Past evidence also points out that some corporations within the mining industry have even actively sought to advocate for courses of action that discourage holding an inquiry.

Examples of this would include cases of dozers being inundated with water in mine sumps. Evidence suggests there have been regular occurrences of this type of incident in the industry across Australia for several years despite no known fatalities, yet the probability of a fatality in this high-risk task is well recognised by companies who have experienced near-fatal events.

Despite this, leading mining companies have locked down information on past incidents that have only been released through court processes.

Corporate spin in work safety – Rethink information sharing

Negative publicity, particularly that involving safety-related incidents, can damage a corporate image and reputation. “This is due to its high credibility as well as the negativity effect, a tendency for negative information to be weighted more than positive information in the evaluation of people, objects, and ideas (Mizerski, 1982 cited by Dean, 2004:193).”

Despite this, timely sharing of information is important to ensuring incidents are prevented, and hazards recognised across the industry.

Attempts to subvert information with respect to safety-related incidents or accidents could result in history repeating. These incidents may not occur again at the same workplace or company. Instead, they may occur in other workplaces across the sector using similar work methods or equipment.

An ethical debate regarding the sharing of industry safety information at times of crisis is well justified for both governments and corporations alike.

PR and legal practitioners should test applications of holistic approaches, including ethical obligations for information disclosure regarding safety-related incidents. Communicating sufficient detail to other industry participants in a timely fashion will help prevent the recurrence of tragic events. Subversive actions may ultimately leave blood on the hands of PR and legal teams, which is worth considering.

Across the wider industry, professionals must never forget that fatalities, injuries and illnesses are ultimately about the immediate impact on people, not corporations.

Productive post-crisis event messaging might well consider the future broader safety implications in information sharing as well as the defensive strategies that seek to maintain corporate reputation.

John Ninness is a Senior Consultant in Work Safety with Safetysure and Consulting Editor of Australasian Mine Safety Journal. He has 30 years of experience in workplace safety in both mining and general industries and has been a long-time advocate for safety information sharing and transparency in governmental safety practice.

References

Argyris, C., 1991, “Teaching smart people how to learn”. Harvard Business Review. 69 (3): 99–109. [Accessed 1 August 2019]

Arezes, P. M. & Miguel, A. S., (2003). The role of safety culture in safety performance measurement, Measuring Business Excellence, 7, 20-28.

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Benoit, W. L. (1995). Accounts, excuses, and apologies: A theory of image restoration. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Coal Workers Pneumoconiosis Select Committee, 2017 ‘Black lung White Lies – Inquiry into the re-identification of coal workers’ pneumoconiosis in Queensland, Report No two 55th Parliament, Available Online at https://www.parliament.qld.gov.au/documents/tableOffice/TabledPapers/2017/5517T815.pdf[Accessed 1 August 2019]

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Coombs, W. T. and Holladay, S. J.  (2001). An extended examination of the crisis situation: A fusion of the relational management and symbolic approaches.  Journal of Public Relations Research, 13, 321-340. 

Coombs, W. T., & Holladay, S. J. (1996). Communication and attributions in a crisis: An experimental study of crisis communication. Journal of Public Relations Research, 8(4), 279-295. 

Coombs, W. T. & Holladay, S. J., 2006.  Halo or reputational capital: Reputation and crisis management.  Journal of Communication Management, 10(2), 123-137.

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Easton, S. 2018, Push Vs Pull: National FOI stats paint a blurry picture of open government, The Mandarin, Available online at https://www.themandarin.com.au/87472-national-foi-stats-paint-a-blurry-picture-of-open-government-in-australia/ [Accessed 1 August 2019]

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Knaus, C. & Bassano, J. 2019, How a flawed freedom-of-information regime keeps Australians in the dark, The Guardian, available online at https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2019/jan/02/how-a-flawed-freedom-of-information-regime-keeps-australians-in-the-dark [Accessed 1 August 2019]

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Mizerski, R. W. (1982). An Attribution of the Disproportionate Influence of Unfavorable Information. Journal of Consumer Research, 9, 301-310.  https://doi.org/10.1086/208925

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