British Columbia

Pipeline explosions to protests: Companies need to communicate with public during crisis, urges consultant

Some natural resource companies in Northern B.C. are pre-emptively preparing just in case disaster hits by coming up with a communication strategy for incidents from pipeline explosions to protests.

Crisis communication is one of the workshops at the B.C. Natural Resources Forum this week

Hundreds marched in downtown Vancouver on Jan. 12, 2019, to support the Wet'suwet'en opposition to the Coastal Gas Link pipeline project in Northern B.C. Communications consultant Martin Livingstone says companies need to prepare for crises like protests. (Chad Pawson/CBC)

Some natural resource companies in Northern B.C. are pre-emptively preparing in case disaster hits by coming up with a communication strategy for incidents from pipeline explosions to protests.

Silence is the worst path a company can take during a crisis, according to communications consultant Martin Livingstone.

"In this era of instant notifications and social sharing, companies in the crosshairs really need to act swiftly and decisively in responding to a crisis," said Livingstone, who works with the Vancouver-based Living Communications Inc.

He's in Prince George this week, leading a workshop on crisis communication at the annual B.C. Natural Resources Forum.

'Protecting their reputation'

The kind of crises Livingstone is focusing on are anything that harms people, damages a company's reputation, interrupts business or negatively impacts the bottom line.

His list of scenarios ranges from explosions and spills to employee deaths and injury to cyber attacks and protests and blockades.

"[The company] really needs to be seen as doing the right thing,"he told Carolina de Ryk, the host of CBC's Daybreak North.

"It's a case of protecting their reputation."

Fourteen people were arrested at a checkpoint outside Smithers B.C., earlier this month for protesting a LNG project on Wet'suwet'en traditional territory (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Advice on preparing

Often, that means trying to get ahead of the story before rumours spread and become the go-to source of information.

"As much as possible, the initial statements should convey that the company is in control and has a plan to manage the situation," Livingstone said.

In the case of protests, such as the recent pipeline protests in Northern B.C. and opposition to a LNG project on Wet'suwet'en traditional territory, managing public perceptions can be tricky.

"Pipeline protests are very volatile, highly emotional issues and, sometimes, it's preferable for a company not to step out directly into a spotlight," Livingstone said.

"That's why you see with a lot of pipeline companies targeted by protesters, they are careful not to inflame a volatile situation and get drawn into debate about a project."

In those cases, a different tactic is needed.

"It's beneficial to have independent third parties sometimes stepping up and confirming that you've taken the appropriate steps to rectify or address those situations," he said.

Ultimately, he urged, companies need to have a communications strategy before disaster strikes.

"You want those tools in your toolbox to be able to get the message out," he said. "But it really comes down to a judgment call. Every situation is different."

Crisis communication is one of the workshops at the B.C. Natural Resources Forum this week 6:18

With files from Daybreak North

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