Crisis Communications Lessons From Three Mile Island
A recent news article highlights the history of the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. The piece goes into some detail on the communications challenges because it is in many ways a profile of Ralph DeSantis, who retired Feb. 28 as communications manager. DeSantis has some interesting — and instructive — things to say about the communications difficulties arising from the crisis.
One fun part of DeSantis’ story: When the accident occurred (38 years ago this month), he’d been working at the nuclear power plant for only three months — as a security guard. He’d just graduated college and planned to move on. Instead, he became a spokesperson there. He was partly influenced in that, he says, by his realization that as a guard on the inside of Three Mile Island (pictured), he was getting some of the best information. Information gathering is crucial in a crisis.
“We were getting very good information at the plant,” DeSantis says in John Luciew’s March 2 article on PennLive.com, the web presence of The Patriot-News, the Harrisburg newspaper. “One of the big problems was all the misinformation that was out there in the days after the accident.”
Indeed, company and government officials weren’t on the same page and were putting out mixed and incorrect messages, DeSantis says. For one thing, the company downplayed the significance of the accident. The governor’s evacuation advisory covered only pregnant women and young children, maybe 5,000 people. And yet, about 144,000 panicked people evacuated, partly because they weren’t getting good information. In the end, the accident wasn’t very serious: 99 percent of the radioactivity released was contained inside and the 1 percent was harmless noble gas, DeSantis says.
One reason people didn’t trust the company was that it had never done any community relations to develop that understanding; a cardinal rule of crisis communications is that the middle of the crisis is not the time to start developing positive relationships.
‘Anyone Can Do It’
Three Mile Island also didn’t take public relations very seriously. In a 2009 article in Power magazine, communications researcher Peter M. Sandman, who covered the accident as a reporter, wrote that when he asked a Three Mile Island engineer why communications professionals’ advice was so often ignored, his response was, “PR isn’t a real field. It’s not like engineering. Anyone can do it.”
One of the big problems was all the misinformation that was out there in the days after the accident.
— Ralph DeSantis, former communications manager, Three Mile Island
About six months after the Three Mile Island accident, DeSantis became a communications officer. The event continued to be a major story, even nationally. A big part of DeSantis’ job was to meet with the community to try to gain its trust. This wasn’t just for touchy-feely reasons. Although the accident happened in Unit 2, Unit 1 was also shut down. The company needn’t to get permission to operate it again.
“A big part of us going out was to let people vent, to listen to people, to be empathetic,” DeSantis says.
He and his colleagues did eventually gain that trust, with community outreach, government relations, and philanthropy, he says. “We had kind of proven ourselves that we were going to communicate with people.”
He also says that it all paid off when Unit 1 got its license back in 1985 and that the public has seen that there haven’t been further problems.
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