Lonmin's Marikana mess, and its subsequent bad handling of the situation, threatens to become the mining company's own Deepwater Horizon.
Public relation practitioners say you can never over-communicate in a crisis. But what emerged in the wake of Marikana massacre was an information vacuum. A common refrain in many of the news reports in the days after the shooting was that Lonmin could not be reached for comment.
When the Daily Maverick tried to get a response on the growing crisis at the mine in the days before the massacre, after 10 people had already died, there was no response from Lonmin.
On the Thursday when the shooting happened, Mail & Guardian reporters found that facts were hard to come by from all sources at Marikana.
The company kept a low profile in the days after the massacre, with its chairperson Roger Phillimore saying "it goes without saying that we deeply regret the further loss of life in what is clearly a public order rather than labour relations-associated matter".
And while President Jacob Zuma called for seven days of national mourning, a company order for workers to get back to work, issued days before, was still in force.
Newspapers reported those who did not heed this "final ultimatum" faced dismissal, and friends and colleagues of the miners who were dead, injured or imprisoned viewed the demand as an insult and refused to return to work.
The company also came under fire when it was reported that one of its spokespeople, Barnard Mokwena, said he could not speak to reporters as he was traumatised and undergoing counselling. This was seen as hugely insensitive to the miners and families of those who had been physically injured or killed in the shooting.
A source close to the company told the M&G this statement was taken wildly out of context, from a remark made by a spokesperson to a personal friend. But the record was never set straight and the insensitive impression that was created still persists.
When the City Press asked for comment on an NGOs report on the social, economic and environmental impacts of mining in the North West, a spokesperson said management was too caught up in dealing with the labour violence at its Marikana operations to comment.
Later the paper interrogated the salary divide between Lonmin's rock drillers and its executives, and the mining company again did not respond.
In the meantime, Lonmin's stock price continued to plummet.
Crisis communication fail
Insiders at Lonmin have defended the company, saying it has had a lot to deal with – from working out a peace accord with the aggrieved miners to ironing out a wage agreement and dealing with hundreds of journalists from around the world, all seeking constant updates.
But PR experts say the company's handling of communications on the Marikana incident has been a case study in how not to handle crisis communications.
Solly Moeng, brand management consultant and president elect of the Public Relations Institute of South Africa, said Lonmin had a "a failure at crisis communications management" and that it had either failed to put in place proper crisis communication management plans, or failed to implement them properly.
Moeng said Lonmin's warnings to workers to get back to work "failed to take into consideration time would be needed to mourn and bury the dead", and he questioned whether the company's foreign CEO had suitable local advisors on how South Africans deal with death.
Managing expectations in a crisis is key, and Lonmin failed to do this, he said. "There should always be someone to deal professionally with media; well trained, patient and reliable," he added.
"When I first observed the initial Lonmin reaction to the aftermath of the Marikana massacre, I couldn't stop thinking of the 2010 BP oil spill in the [US], and the subsequent declaration by the company's then CEO, Tony Hayward, that he wanted his life back … a declaration that resulted in the loss of his job some months after that," he said.
BP's haphazard management of communications around a catastrophic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico turned into a PR nightmare.
"Clearly Lonmin dismally failed the PR test in this case," he said.
Professor Ronel Rensburg, director of the University of Pretoria's Centre for Communication and Reputation Management, echoed this sentiment, saying Lonmin's PR on the Marikana incident had been "shamefully executed".
"There is also a great deal of doubt – from a communication and reputation perspective – whether Lonmin will fully recover from this incident," she said.
Rensburg said the poor communications and media relations on the Marikana shooting extended to all the parties involved in the incident.
"The potential for opportunism by groups and individuals after the Marikana Massacre surely would have had less potential if there was not such deep legitimacy gap between reality and perception," she said.
Rensburg said rumours fly in any crisis and this requires a very clear communication of the facts.
"No organisation can afford not to have their facts as straight and unambiguous as possible, notwithstanding the severity and painfulness of the crisis. Uninformed stakeholders – in particular those who are hurt by the crisis – have a tendency to fill the gaps in the story and use emotional communication and hearsay if there is insufficient factual formal communication available. The media can therefore also not be blamed for speculation in this case because of a lack of substantial communication," she said.
The filling of the gaps with emotional communication and hearsay could be seen in the confusion over how much Lonmin's rock-drillers are paid. A figure of R4 000 was originally flighted by miners who reporters had spoken to. These numbers were later contested by various stakeholders – other miners, independent organisations and eventually Lonmin itself.
"Lonmin did not communicate facts and did not establish a relationship with the media. Lonmin further entered into a lot of deception because of not responding appropriately to all stakeholders, and it also utilised inappropriate communication channels ... In this time of immediacy of communication, social media will pick up on any event. Within minutes of the 'Marikana massacre', the event went viral and caused a furore across the globe," said Rensburg.
An analysis by digital marketing agency Native shows there were over 283 000 mentions on Lonmin online since the beginning of August – with a peak of 50 000 on the day of the shooting, and most of this traffic was driven not from South Africa but from the US.
The vast majority of this – 65.7% – was on microblogging platform Twitter, with an additional 14.5% on Facebook. Only 8.8% of the discussion on Lonmin happened through mainstream news sites.
Talita Myburgh, an online reputation management specialist at Native, said the fact that Lonmin's CEO Ian Farmer was admitted to hospital was disastrous in terms of communication.
"Had he attempted to manage the situation despite his illness, the effect would have been entirely different. But worse still, [Lonmin chairperson] Roger Phillimore who stepped up to fill the void did not do so in a visible enough manner by failing to participate where the information was being created and forwarded – Twitter," she said.
"In today's social information age, a lack of visible, decisive leadership that aligns with a company's online community's values is gross negligence and reputational suicide."
Myburg said companies that do not participate in the online dialogue run the risk of having the community speak for it instead of taking the opportunity to state its case and have an early impact on the sentiment of influencers – the sources of information trusted by the public.
This "sentiment" is increasingly being analysed and used in modelling by Wall Street mathematicians to predict share prices, she said.
"Half a world away on international stock markets where information is king, Lonmin's failure to participate in the online community's conversation has cast doubt on management and is undoubtedly linked to its fall in share price," she said.
Lonmin did not respond to a request for comment.
But a few days later the company set up a website to address questions about its role in the Marikana killings. The website, lonminmarikanainfo.com, answers some frequently asked questions about miners' salaries and benefits, the company's social and labour plans for nearby areas, its actions around the time of the strike, and the company's efforts to assist the families of those killed during the strike.
Sam Beckbessinger, strategic planner at e-marketing company Quirk, told the M&G it was unfortunate that the website did not appear on the first page of a Google search on "Lonmin" and "Marikana".
"That means few people are likely to be seeing their online response," she said.
A trustworthy site
This search yields news stories concerning the Marikana massacre first, and further down the page, a link to Lonmin's careers website.
But Beckbessinger added this was to be expected as the site is very new and websites typically take about three months to rank in Google.
"Unfortunately, the tonality of this website and their online content doesn't feel quite right or trustworthy. The best ways to respond to crises online is to be human, honest and humble. It doesn't feel like they're doing that. It feels like they're hiding behind PR speak. Clearly they're scared and in retreat, which is to be expected, but is unlikely to help them turn around public sentiment or demonstrate that they're engaging with the community to solve the underlying issues," said Beckbessinger.
So what can other businesses learn about online reputation management from this?
"Be prepared. Have a plan. Own your mouthpieces. And, importantly, if you are going to respond online, understand that you have to do so carefully, humbly and honestly, or you risk making everything that much worse," she said.