Lonmin – When the House Is on Fire It’s Too Late to Install Smoke Detectors

The mining industry in South Africa is currently experiencing significant setbacks as strike action at the Lonmin Marikana mine continues to spread to surrounding areas; this is over and above the falling commodity prices worldwide and the closure of five platinum mines in almost as many months.

In terms of crisis communications the initial Lonmin saga is an ideal case study highlighting the importance of not only understanding the market and being realistic about challenges within the industry, but also that of scenario planning and the development of a comprehensive, locally applicable, crisis communications plan.

When your company’s CEO is in hospital with an un-named serious illness, and the acting CEO (the current COO) declines media interviews as he is “in therapy”, it becomes clear that a consolidated communications approach is not being implemented – or worse – is being dictated by the London headquarters, typically by people who have little knowledge of the country and its political environment.

The importance of an intimate knowledge and understanding of local industry, customs, business practices, cultures and language cannot be overemphasised and multinational companies, in this case in the mining industry, often require a certain amount of education around local communications techniques and tactics. Although this education process can be a time consuming exercise in frustration, the rewards will pay off tenfold when a crisis hits.

There are five definitive stages in any crisis namely: detection, prevention/preparation, containment, recovery and learning.

If internal and stakeholder communications are neglected, challenges within the company cannot be accurately detected and assessed. In the case of Lonmin the extent of increased union involvement and the unrest felt within the workforce may have been underestimated, and if these communications were successfully in place it could be fair to assume that preventative measures would have had a far better chance of success.

Realistic assessment of challenges within the industry are vital for communication and unfortunately it would appear that in Lonmin’s case because the previous two stages in the crisis were not handled sufficiently, containment and recovery is proving even more difficult.

Media reports are speculating as to whether the Lonmin Marikana mine will continue to be in operation at the end of the month as the mine continues to lose money. The extent to which this crisis has escalated, and the resulting effect on the bottom line, goes to prove that an effective and realistic crisis communications plan is not only an essential element for reputation management, but is in fact a business imperative.