Case Study


Nuclear Plant Gets Drilled on Crisis Management If a nuclear disaster strikes, the South Texas Project (STP) - the country's second largest nuclear plant - proved it can disseminate timely, accurate news within an hour, earning FEMA's highest crisis communications rating. FEMA drills, which occur every other year, thrust nuclear plant communicators into a variety of crisis scenarios. In its most recent drill earlier this year, STP communicators demonstrated how they would manage a contamination scenario using keen message development skills, synchronized teamwork and media ambush strategies. In disaster situations, half the battle is diluting highly technical nuclear issues into layman's terms, says Eileen Wixted, a partner with Wixted* Pope*Nora & Associates, a strategic planning agency in Des Moines, Iowa, that provides crisis training for STP. Providing thorough explanations of scary terms like radiation and contamination is critical to putting a nuclear crisis in its proper context. In addition, damning images of disasters at Three Mile Island and Chernobyl continue to haunt the industry and often have to be addressed head on before establishing credibility with the media and community. Developing an Emergency Response In an hours time, STP showed FEMA how it would coordinate key spokespeople and media liaisons, craft messages in conjunction with other regulatory agencies, develop press releases and plan a media briefing at the Joint Information Center created in a hotel room a few miles away from the plant in Wadsworth, Texas. The messages had to first convey STP's concern for the health and safety of the community and employees, explain the emergency situation in an easily understandable way and provide a game plan for preventing the crisis again, says Lisa Grant, an STP senior communications specialist. Using large diagrams to illustrate technical terms and to help the media visualize the impact of nuclear exposure, STP spokespeople develop credibility. "Communications is a context sport," says Wixted, who trains STP spokespeople on how to communicate about the plant's safety systems with highly relevant analogies. This communication skill is pivotal for spokespeople like nuclear engineers who have an extremely technical background. In media training for STP employees, WPN focuses on the human-interest angles of nuclear disaster scenarios. So far, WPN has trained about 100 STP employees on varying levels of crisis communications. Wixted, who specializes in nuclear crisis communications, says that developing expertise in this area requires several months of researching the industry's safety systems, plant tours and FEMA regulations. Long-term Crisis Planning This year STP's crisis management training focused on regrouping after key messages haven't registered with the media and establishing cohesive teamwork - jumping in when a team member gets sidetracked or frustrated by highlighting important messages. STP's primary spokespeople, who concentrate in three areas of technical expertise, have received four years of crisis communications training from WPN. "STP takes the long term view on emergency preparedness and their spokespeople exude credibility and confidence," says Wixted, who works with 26 nuclear plants. By comparison, many other plants take a short-term view of crisis management, content to barely pass or get an average score on FEMA drills. Grant, who received advanced media training, says the intense two-day session reinforces her understanding of what the media wants during a crisis. Her skills are sharper in the key areas of framing accurate messages quickly and using bridging techniques (getting back to your message when a reporter has gone in another direction). Though STP has never had to use this training in an actual emergency situation, the communications skills can be applied to strengthening the plant's overall media relations. Like other nuclear plants, STP needs to generate more positive media coverage through outreach initiatives such as forums, conferences and presentations that would generate positive press coverage. "People don't have a general understanding of the nuclear industry, its communicators have to make up for that deficit," says Wixted. (WPN, Eileen Wixted, 515/226-0818; STP, Lisa Grant, 512/972-7528) Wixted*Pope*Nora & Associates Founded: 1989 Offices: Des Moines, Iowa; Chicago Billings: Not available Clients: Amoco Corp., Sara Lee Corp., Baxter International, U.S. News & World Report Focus: Strategic communications, training, issues and crisis management

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